Have you ever wondered what your cat’s dreams are about? There is nothing like the moment when a cat, sleeping in your lap or next to you, begins to twitch their whiskers. It is adorable to watch, but a cat lover can’t help but wonder what could be dancing through their precious furbaby’s mind. It’s one of the deepest mysteries that exists. Lucky for us, science has found a way to attempt to understand what could be happening when our kitties drift off to sleep.
Featured Photo Credit: Donald Lee Pardue via Flickr
The 5 Stages of Sleep
There are many things about sleep that are the same for both cats and humans. Despite the way it looks, sleep is actually a very active activity. Studies have discovered that there are 5 main stages that a sleeping human works their way through. The stages are almost the same in cats. However, it appears that Stages 1 & 2 meld together into one stage in cats.
- Stage 1: Drifting off
A light phase of sleep that occurs as a person (or a cat) drifts off to sleep. It can feel a little bit like daydreaming.
- Stage 2: Loss of Awareness
The stage of sleep where the person is no longer aware of their surroundings and their body temperature drops. In cats, this may just be an extension of Stage 1.
- Stages 3 & 4: Restoration
These are the deepest parts of sleep. This is where the immune system kicks in and the body does most of its restoring and healing. The blood pressure drops and muscles are relaxed. However, toward the end of stage 4 is where events like sleep walking and bed wetting are most likely to take place.
- Stage 5 : Dreaming
This stage is known as REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep because a human’s eyes dart around under their eyelids during this stage. In cats, REM sleep is not characterized by eye movement, but rather by twitching whiskers and limbs. The brain becomes very active and dreams take place. The body, on the other hand, goes through a sort of paralysis with muscles completely relaxed and inactive.
Differences Between Cats and Humans Regarding Sleep
As mentioned above, the sleep cycle of cats is a little bit different than that of humans. Rather than having 5 distinct stages of sleep, cats have what looks like 3 stages: light, deep, and dreaming. Young kittens even appear to skip the light stage! Cat lovers who have had kittens often note that they play, play, play, and suddenly fall asleep where they were. Kittens can fall deeply asleep in seconds and wake just as quickly. Older cats have a more intentional, gradual transition from wakefulness to sleep.
The length of a sleep cycle (the time it takes to get through all stages of sleep once) is not the same in cats and humans either. In humans, the entire cycle takes more than 90 minutes and repeats 4-5 per night. While cats may sleep a total of 15 hours per day on average, their sleep cycles are only about 15-35 minutes each. Cats simply take a number of naps every day rather than sleeping all in one chunk.
Studying the Dreams of Cats
In the 1950’s, scientists Michel Jouvet and JF Delorme used cats while studying different aspects of sleep. Wanting to know more about what was going on in dreams, the scientists removed a part of the cat’s brain called the pons, which is part of the brainstem responsible for the paralysis during REM sleep. It’s not a very humane experiment, but it did reveal some interesting results.
It was thought that the cats would have random body movements as they dreamed. However, the experiment discovered that cats in this new REM-A (indicating that their REM sleep would be un-paralyzed ) sleep moved around just as they would during wakefulness. It appeared that they were acting out their dreams – playing, stalking, and pouncing on prey. Scientists concluded that cats dream about doing things that are a part of their everyday activity.
The 1-minute video below shows a cat in REM-A sleep. It is not gross or graphic in any way.