Do cats dream of catching prey and eating food? Do they have nightmares of being frightened by a bigger animal? Do they dream of their owners? Feline-loving veterinarians share their thoughts on what felines might be imagining when they're lying there, twitching and wiggling with their eyes closed.

By Brendan Howard
October 22, 2020
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Your cat's eyes are closed. Her body is contorted into some weird curlicue, with head and paws gently twitching, and you wonder, "Do cats have dreams when they sleep?" 

Experts think so. And they back up the argument, strangely enough, with research into the sleeping patterns of one of the many small animals that cats (sometimes) catch and eat: rats. Researchers have studied enough of rat brains to guess that rats dream of what they do during the day in the lab. In their sleep, rats navigate a maze or remember sounds they heard or have bad dreams.

Cats probably do the same, says Kelly St. Denis, DVM, current president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners. (Incidentally, dogs do, too.)

"Cats, like most other mammals, do dream," St. Denis says. "Studies on the electrical brain patterns in rats when they're asleep compared to performing regular tasks when awake show striking similarities. These studies suggest that the cats are dreaming about the same tasks. It is likely that our cats are experiencing the same dream sleep, as do dogs."

What Do Cats Dream About?

Because researchers think rats dream about what they do during the day (see above), it's a fair guess that cats do the same thing. You do the same thing. Your family and friends, your weird encounters with strangers, your daily habits, and your anxiety about work and life all filter into your brain's nighttime games. That's probably true for your cat, too. Do cats dream like humans? Probably, in some way.

Credit: Yeji Kim

"Like humans and rats, it's likely that our cats are dreaming about their day-to-day activities," St. Denis says. "These may be distorted inside their dream life, as our dreams sometimes are, but as with rats, they likely show similar brain pattern activity as seen when they're awake and performing these tasks.”

Do cats have bad dreams? Because researchers think rats may have nightmares, cats probably do, too. But because we can't ask, and cats can't answer, we just don't know, says Verna Serra, DVM, with the national hospital chain Veterinary Emergency Group. (Too bad cats can't keep dream journals yet.)

"Cats are hunters, so they like to prey on things," Serra says. "They may be dreaming about their favorite toys, a smelly meal, sharpening their nails on a couch, or being petted. They likely dream about a variety of things, just like we do."

St. Denis agrees, but puts in a good word that maybe you show up (in a good way) in those nighttime adventures, too.

"Most likely they have dreams of hunting and playing," she says, "as well as cuddling and loving their housemates and human companions."

What Does It Mean When Your Sleeping Cat Makes Noise and Moves or Twitches?

Don't be alarmed, say veterinarians. Just like people (and rats), cats likely do most of their most vivid dreaming during the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep. These are moments when a cat's mouth may move, she may make tiny sounds, or her paws and legs may twitch. It may mean your cat is deep in a good (or weird) dream. That's all normal.

If your cat's a good sleeper, you know you've done a great job making her feel secure in your home.

If you're worried that your cat's sleeping is unhealthy or your cat's sleeping habits abruptly change, consider this list of reasons and check with a veterinarian for further information.

Now, sit back, curl up with your favorite sleeping cat, and watch those whiskers twitch and those little paws go.