Is Your Dog Twitching in His Sleep? Don't Worry—It's Normal Behavior
We'll never know what our dogs dream about, but when their limbs start twitching mid-slumber, it's clear that whatever is going on inside their heads feels real. Perhaps they're hot on the tail of a squirrel, greeting you at the door, or simply scratching an itch.
Is your dog twitching in his sleep? Usually it's no cause for concern, as this is common behavior during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.
The Dog Sleep Cycle
"Dogs experience sleep phases like people and other mammals. REM sleep is important in humans for dreaming, memory, and emotional processing," says Bonnie Bragdon, DVM, co-founder and president of the Independent Veterinary Practitioners Association. "Eye movement, changes in breathing, leg movement, and vocalizing can be observed in both people and dogs during sleep, indicating the REM phase."
A typical sleep cycle for dogs (and humans) is wakefulness, REM, and non-rapid-eye-movement sleep. However, dogs differ from humans in the amount of time they spend in REM sleep. They usually enter this stage after about 20 minutes of sleep, and it lasts for approximately 5 minutes. Humans don't reach this stage until about 90 minutes into sleep, and we experience it for roughly 60 minutes.
Why Do Dogs Twitch in Their Sleep?
Mammals have an area of the brain stem called the pons, which regulates automatic functions such as breathing and the sleep-wake cycle. It's also responsible for muscle control. During REM sleep, the pons relaxes the body's posture and limbs so people—and dogs!—don't act out dreams.
Unless your pup spasms violently or becomes rigid, occasional kicking and twitching accompanied by little noises is completely normal behavior during the REM stage, as is irregular breathing.
"If you observe twitching and vocalizing during sleep, it's best to let your dog finish his or her REM cycle and dream and not intervene," Bragdon says. Completed REM cycles are an important component of quality sleep and overall health, because even though dogs snooze an average of 12 hours daily, their sleep cycles are shorter—about 45 minutes, which means they'll likely only have one brief REM stage per nap.
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Bragdon adds that while all ages of dogs twitch in their sleep, puppies and senior dogs exhibit more movement during REM sleep than adults. This is often because the pons isn't fully developed in pups and doesn't work as effectively as it used to in older pooches.
When Should I Be Concerned About Dog Twitching?
Bragdon says if you notice your dog twitching and vocalizing excessively during sleep, these could be symptoms of REM sleep disorder and may actually put him—and you—in danger. "Excessive" in this case means your pet might kick violently, bark, growl, howl, chew, and even bite while asleep. She adds that the condition is rare and can be treated.
But take note: While twitching is typical behavior during REM sleep, it shouldn't occur when your pup is awake. "This isn't normal and may indicate your dog is experiencing a seizure or be a sign of certain neurologic toxicities or other neuromuscular diseases," Bragdon says. "Dogs rarely have seizures while sleeping—they experience seizures after waking from sleep and won't respond to noise, touch, or other stimulation."
If you happen to call your dog's name while he's sleeping, Bragdon says he'll quickly waken, stop twitching, and act normally. However, if a dog is experiencing a seizure, twitching will continue "with no apparent response or acknowledgement of the stimulus." A dog with a neurological disease or neurologic toxicity issue "may acknowledge the noise or other stimulation, but won't be able to stop twitching" either. If you notice any of these symptoms, arrange for a veterinary exam immediately.
Additional Reporting By Megan Overdeep.