Their eyes are shut, their feet splayed and you envy how they fall asleep so easily, so calmly, anywhere. Suddenly, they move in their slumber as if they’re acting out what they do in their waking life and you are awed. Pets dreaming. All mammals do it, some birds. Not fish, reptiles or bugs — they don’t experience REM sleep, it seems — but that little puppy curled at your feet, the kitty sitting on top of the stove, the parakeet roosting on their swing in their cage… studies show that, yep, they’re experiencing something very similar to what we humans do — dreams.
They say that lab rats dream of the maze they’ve just run. How do they know this, you may wonder — and who are “they?” Well, the “they” are scientists and since their life’s work is all about research and study, they have been able to track rat brainwaves and the areas in the brain that are active during sleep coincides almost exactly with the different areas of the course the rodents just ran. It got us thinking — because we are pet people and we want to know these things — what else do our pets dream?
And why are they dreaming?
An animal is an animal, no matter the species
Other than cats — which, thanks to a dude named Michel Jouvet, we know a fair amount about how, why and what runs through their feline heads when they sleep — no one really knows what animals are dreaming. Two gorillas, Koko and Michael, actually sign their dreams to their handlers but besides them, it’s merely educated guesses as to what’s going on during REM.
It stands to reason, however, that humans and our pets who share the same sleep patterns experience dreams in the same way. For example, we tend to relive events from our own lives, albeit tangential and obscured. Our furry friends seem to be seeing and doing that as well. This is part of recreating to help us learn and evolve. It may also be a chance to respond to a risky situation in a way that can’t be done in real life but in dreams there are no consequences. Once our pets reach deep sleep or REM, they’ve been known to reconstruct moments they have experienced in their day-to-day life, such as running, tracking, digging, chasing, etc. while still asleep.
Take Koko and Michael, the two gorillas who can sign their dreams to their caregivers. Koko has lived a warm, caring life. She signs her nocturnal visions in a more traditional way — things that have happened, some places she’s never seen but in her dreams, etc. Michael, on the other hand, was left orphaned as a baby when his entire family was killed by poachers in front of him. He appears to relive this in his dreams because when he comes awake, he frequently signs, “Bad people kill gorillas.”
My older dog does a lot of laughing. Not sure if that’s because she’s happy or her way of letting me know she’s not really a dog at all, but she gets this smile on her graying muzzle then “Yips!” and “Yaps!” with eyes twitching, lips moving. Fun to watch and super weird.
And every bunny I’ve had tends to have a rather fruitful sleep cycle, giant feet moving, ears twitching, super cute yawns that turn into little smiles… These are all minds filled with their simple, beautiful life and reliving those things that make up their everyday.
Now, let’s be real. We have no idea truly what pets and animals are dreaming or even why. They do not speak — other than Koko and Michael the gorillas — and they cannot communicate what they are experiencing in a way humans can certainly and realistically understand. A good night’s sleep strengthens our brain’s ability to learn and remember, so reliving the activity of the day or replaying learning moments in our dreams helps us create better building blocks for memory and absorbing knowledge. And because we share the same REM cycles with our pets, it goes to reason that the why and what we dream is also similar.
I don’t know about you, but I feel a great sense of responsibility in that. Animals are so much a part of my life — and for all of us, actually, especially those of us with pets — that finding out they fall asleep with visions of their daytime dancing in their head makes me want to work that much harder to make their daily lives the true, delicious and well-deserved stuff of dreams.
Something to sleep on.