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What Do Animals Dream About?

Is that mutt really chasing rabbits in his sleep? An animal psychologist, a dog expert and an evolutionary biologist weigh in.

Parenting a pet, no matter what kind, can be a frustrating and bewildering experience. Animals can’t tell you what they want and need (directly, at least), so we’re here to help you answer any questions you have about your favorite companion — whether they be furry, slimy, feathered, scaly or anything in between — with insight from the experts. This is “Basic Bitch,” an advice column for pet parents who just want the best for their best friend.

The Very Basic Concern

My dog loves to be near me, so I recently moved his bed from my bedroom to a spot right next to my desk, where I tend to spend most of my time (during the day, at least). He lives the good life and takes frequent naps while I work, and during those naps, I often catch him flailing his feet around and making quiet little wuffly barks (squee!), as if he were dreaming about chasing after a cat or running around the dog park. Of course, I have no idea what he actually dreams about, nor do I know if he even dreams at all, but I’m extremely curious.

Basically: What do animals dream about?

The Expert Advice

Zazie Todd, animal psychologist and author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy: When we sleep, we go through a sleep cycle that includes both REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM sleep. It’s during the REM phase that we have our most vivid dreams. If woken during this phase, people can often describe what they were dreaming about. Mammals and birds also experience REM sleep, so it seems very likely that they dream, too. The trouble is, we can’t ask them about it, so we don’t know for sure.

During REM sleep, although our eyes can move rapidly, other movements are suppressed, presumably to stop us from acting out our dreams and hurting ourselves. A French researcher named Michel Jouvet showed that paradoxical sleep (his term for REM sleep) has an important biological function: In one of his experiments with cats, he induced a lesion to the part of the brain responsible for this paralysis during REM sleep. Although the cats behaved normally when awake, during REM sleep, they did the kinds of things they do during waking, as if they were hallucinating. For example, they seemed to watch something as if stalking it, and seemed to get angry, as if fighting another cat. 

This suggests that they were dreaming about their daily lives and the things they do. So we can guess that pet dogs and pet cats dream about their daily lives, including us, but we don’t really know. If you want to know when they’re dreaming, see if you notice any of the rapid eye movements that go with REM sleep.

There was a recent news item about an octopus named Heidi that changed color while sleeping, and the suggestion from biologist David Scheel was that perhaps this meant she was dreaming. The color changes are similar to those that happen when she’s catching and eating a crab whilst awake. I loved seeing the video, and I think it’s really fascinating, but again, it’s important to note that we don’t really know yet.

Mark Derr, dog expert and author of How the Dog Became the Dog, Dog’s Best Friend and A Dog’s History of America: My own notion is that it would be foolish not to say that animals dream, including dogs. How rich that dream life is, we don’t know. We don’t even know that much about our own dream lives.

We’ve all seen dogs running in their dreams — they hunt in their dreams, I would imagine. Some of them might be getting a good hump in, too. Dreaming is a way to consolidate experience, and certainly dogs are consolidating their experiences, unless they’re the poor unfortunates who are kept in a cage all day. Then the dog doesn’t have any emotional life to draw on to have many dreams, I would think, or if they did, they wouldn’t be very pleasant ones.

If you have cats, you’ve experienced them trying to nurse, no doubt. They might be asleep, but they’ll be kneading your body with their paws and sucking on a sheet or a T-shirt or something. That has to be a dream. What else could it be? It’s a dream of being nurtured.

Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and author of more than 1,000 essays on animal behavior, including his book Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do: There’s no reason to think that dogs and other nonhumans don’t dream about a lot of different things. Like rats, they might dream of what they did in the recent past, or they could possibly anticipate future scenarios. Some people might find this to be outlandish, but it’s best to keep an open mind, because they have the brains to do these sorts of things, and it’s highly unlikely that dreaming is solely a human capacity.