Cats Know How to Rack Up the Zzzzs, but Is Their Sleep Serene or Stress-Filled? What to Look for

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When it comes to sleeping, cats have famously made it an art form. However, while sleeping cats may look peaceful, not all feline sleep is serene. Cats know how to fake it, especially when they are stressed and trying to hide anxiety. And, if that’s the case, what are they dreaming about?

Your Cat’s Sleep Patterns

According to information published by the Sleep Foundation website, “more than fifty percent of our domestic kitties sleep between 12 and 18 hours a day, and nearly 40 percent of cats sleep more than 18 hours per day. And, as they grow older, a majority of cats sleep for more hours each day than they did in their younger years.”

Cats have what is called a polyphasic sleep pattern, which means that unlike humans, who typically sleep once a day for a long period, cats sleep multiple times each day. These cat naps average 78 minutes in length. However, cats commonly sleep for periods ranging from 50 to 113 minutes.

Their overall sleep patterns are governed by a circadian rhythm, that internal biological clock that governs the 24-hour sleep and wake schedule.  The human circadian rhythm sleep cycle is diurnal, meaning we are wired to stay awake during daylight hours and sleep during darkness, and it’s believed that domestic house cats have at least partially adapted to our lifestyle, with a majority of their activity occurring during the day, depending on the activity level in the home or availability of food or prey. Free-ranging cats must hunt at times that their preferred prey is active, and those peak activity levels can vary within a 24-hour period.

While They Are Sleeping

Just like their pet parents, cats cycle through different stages of sleep and experience both non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and REM sleep (rapid eye movement). This similarity was first confirmed back in the 1950s and ‘60s when scientists monitored the brains of rats while awake and performing tasks such as running around tracks for food. They then compared the rats’ brain activity while asleep and discovered the same patterns that rats showed while performing waking tasks. This indicated that rats were indeed dreaming, and further research confirmed that this applied to other mammals and even birds.

In 2010 on his blog Sleepless in America, which appears in the publication Psychology Today, clinical psychologist John Cline, PhD, fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine, published a post called “Do Cats Dream of Catching Mice?”

His succinct explanation: “REM sleep is associated with episodes of vivid dreaming. Wakening people during REM sleep typically results in a report of vivid dream imagery and a complex associated story line. Dream imagery can occur in other sleep states but is typically less vivid and complex. After the REM state was identified in humans, a similar state was discovered in cats. As in humans, cats in REM sleep show a low voltage EEG with characteristic eye movements. There is also a loss of muscle tone (atonia), presumably to prevent acting out the dream content. This striking cross-species similarity of brain states and behavior indicated that dreaming may not be limited to or be a uniquely human state of consciousness. In fact, much of the initial work on REM sleep was done on cats and the underlying brain centers involved in REM sleep were discovered in the cat.”

In-depth feline research highlighted that cats go through a period of alertness and activity before becoming drowsy and then falling into NREM sleep. During this NREM stage, your cat may be lightly asleep and ready to awake at a moment’s notice. After NREM sleep, the cat may become alert again and cycle through alertness, drowsiness, and NREM sleep a few times. Eventually in the cycle, they transition from NREM to REM sleep. During REM sleep, the eyes move behind closed eyelids, and cats can twitch or go limp with a loss of muscle tone.

In pet parent “speak,” this translates into repeated periods of just lazing around, deep-sleep snoozes, and wild bouts of zooming around the home. It’s when cats are in a deep sleep that they experience REM sleep like humans.

While scientists aren’t sure if cats dream as we do, or what they dream about, they do know cats have the same physical properties of sleeping. And, if they dream for the same reasons as humans, it’s to organize and arrange images from the day. Dreams allow humans to process information, form memories, and understand new experiences.

So, it goes without saying, that just like humans, the dreams of animals may not always be pleasant or based on realistic experiences. Nightmares and more unusual dreams may be our way of determining optimum ways to behave should that experience arise in our awakened hours. And the same goes for cats. While no feline is going to have a nightmare about dancing naked on a table at a family wedding, they could dream about being chased by a dog. And, after jolted awake by such a fear, when they go back to napping, they could, as Cline says, dream of catching mice.

Pleasant Dreams or Nightmares?

But it’s not only a matter of pleasant dreams and nightmares, says cat behavior consultant Pam Johnson-Bennett, author of numerous best-selling cat books. She points out that cats who are depressed, highly stressed, or in an unhealthy environment may sleep more than usual.

“This type of sleep is not good-quality sleep,” she says. “After a healthy sleep, the cat wakes refreshed and with energy, but sleeping out of stress or depression doesn’t provide renewed energy or healing. Since cats can sleep up to 18 to 20 hours per day, it’s important to know your own cat’s patterns to determine if the amount of sleep is out of the ordinary. Cats who are ill or in pain may sleep more than usual. Cats who are highly stressed, such as a new cat in a shelter environment, may also feign sleep. This is a behavior to avoid social interaction and to basically completely withdraw from the surroundings,” Johnson-Bennett says.

If your cat’s sleep habits change, it’s a good idea to consult your Fear Free certified veterinarian to make sure they’re in good health and don’t have any underlying problems that could be causing sleep disturbances.

“Health changes in your cat can be reflected in their sleep patterns,” says Jon Nauss, DVM, cVMA, VBMC, medical director at Irvine Valley Veterinary Hospital Primary Care and Integrative Medicine in Irvine, California. “You may notice your cat sleeping longer or sleeping less. You may also notice your cat sleeping in locations or postures that are not typical for them or even vocalizing during normal sleeping times. These changes may indicate changes in health, like cognitive dysfunction, pain, hypertension, changes to vision or hyperthyroidism, among others,” he adds.

Consequently, changes in sleep patterns, no matter how subtle, are clues to overall health that need to be investigated.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Sandy Robins is an award-winning pet lifestyle journalist and author of For the Love of Cats, Fabulous Felines: Health and Beauty Secrets for the Pampered Cat, The Original Cat Bible, and Making the Most of All Nine Lives: The Extraordinary Life of Buffy The Cat.

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