Owners feel uneasy watching their cats go from sleeping peacefully to uncontrollable shaking, clawing, twitching their whiskers, biting and even fighting an invisible enemy in their sleep. You may even feel the urge to wake your cat and lessen her discomfort of what appears to be night terrors.
Cats do dream during their sleep, and sometimes they can be unpleasant. For example, a cat may re-experience a negative event that happened during the day. However, if you find your cat shaking momentarily, it’s most probably because of the muscle twitching that occurs during REM sleep.
Even if you think that your cat is having a bad dream, it’s best not to wake it up. Doing so may startle your cat, causing it to lash out its claws or teeth. Bites and scratches can become infected.
Do Cats Have Dreams and Nightmares?
During their sleep, cats tend to relive their experiences and events. According to Cell Reports, the region of the brain that is involved in memory, called the hippocampus, is wired and structured similarly in mammals and vertebrates. When you compare a cat’s hippocampus with a human’s, both have the same parts.
Also, cats go through several sleep stages of slow-wave sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. The prolonged, intense dreams that are experienced typically occur in the deeper stage of REM sleep. Sometimes these dreams can manifest through strange body movements, based on present images, or recalled experiences.
What’s interesting is that cats experience most of their dreaming when their body is relaxed and they are in a deep sleep – not when your cat appears to be sleep-running or twitching.
During the 1960s, Michel Jouvet, a sleep researcher analyzed the intricacies of REM sleep in cats by removing the part of the cat’s brain that keeps it from moving during REM sleep.
As a result, instead of just lying during their sleep, the cats were more mobile and acted aggressively, pouncing, hissing and arching their backs, while stalking around the room – as if they were searching for prey.
During REM sleep, breathing and heart rate speed up, and the eyes begin racing in different directions. A review of Jouvet’s research in the Journal of Sleep Research, mentions that cats may move their heads during REM sleep as if they are watching or following something. The review suggested that cats often dream of hunting, instead of just lying around.
Is My Cat Having Night Terrors?
We know from research that cats do dream. However, this doesn’t mean that nightmares are waking your cat up. The larger muscles that control the limbs and body movements are switched off.
This helps in preventing mammals from physically acting out their dreams. However, this switch can be weak in some cases, explaining why your cat twitches or makes sounds or running motions.
During sleep, the body grows and repairs its systems and the brain processes the experiences and information gained during the day. Young animals tend to dream more than older ones due to the need to process new information as they grow and develop.
In older animals, the off switch that keeps bodily movements in check during REM sleep is often less effective, leading to more movements during sleep.
Sometimes these movements can be so sudden that they jolt the cat awake, leaving her startled and confused for a short period.
What is My Cat Dreaming About?
Scientists aren’t sure about what exactly cats dream about, but it’s most probably the events that the cat experienced during the day. Therefore, it could be dreaming about hunting, playing with companions, jumping onto the curtains or a mealtime.
Anything your feline friend does during the day is processed in its brain while it sleeps. This information is often relived while dreaming. This explains the whimpering, and the twitching owners commonly notice. When a cat dreams, your cat can process and understand the information in its brain. Its neurons are firing in an attempt to create a storyline.
Of course, not all dreams are going to be smooth and pleasant. Unusual dreams and nightmares may be your cat’s way of determining the best way to behave, should an unexpected event arise during its waking hours.
Do Cats Dream in Color?
A common misconception about cats is that they don’t see in color, only different shades of grey. Cats are trichromats, which means they have three kinds of cones in their eyes that allow them to see in red, green and blue. Because cats can see in color, they can also dream in color. However, a cat’s color vision is slightly different from a human’s vision.
Cats see color similar to humans who are color blind. A color blind person may be able to see shades of green and blue, but pinks and reds may appear more confusing. A cat can see more green but colors such as purple, can look like a different shade of blue. Furthermore, cats don’t see the same saturation of colors and richness of hues.
The most significant difference between cat vision and human vision is a tissue layer at the back of the eye containing photoreceptor cells. Photoreceptors convert light rays to electrical signals that are processed by nerve cells and transmitted to the brain. The brain translates this into the images.
There are two types of photoreceptor cells, called rods and cones. While cones are responsible for color perception and day vision, rods are responsible for night and peripheral vision. Your rods play a role in detecting various shades of gray and the brightness of your environment.
Cats have a lower concentration of cones and a higher concentration of rods, allowing them to see well in the night but not detect colors as efficiently as humans.
What To Do When Your Cat is Having Night Terrors
Inevitably, you cannot completely control what your cat dreams about or experiences during her slumber. However, since cats dream about their previous experiences, you can reduce her night terrors by providing some memorable, heartwarming experiences of love and comfort.
1) Verbally Reassure Your Cat
If you see your cat trembling in its sleep, try calling it soothingly to remind your cat that it is still in the comfort of its home. Avoid petting or trying to calm it physically.
Your cat is still in an unpleasant dream, so any touching will startle it and cause involuntary reactions, which includes clawing and biting at anyone nearby.
2) Anchor Your Cat
Once your cat wakes up and recognizes you, place your hand near its nose. Cats are highly aware of different scents and are quickly stimulated by them. Allowing it to experience your scent can help connect to deeper emotional centers of the brain, reminding your cat of where it is.
You can also offer your cat a blanket with your scent to keep it anchored when asleep. Add your scent to her blanket by rubbing it against the back of your neck and hair.
3) Support the Recovery
Some cats have night terrors because they were abused when they were kittens. Whether you adopt a cat without knowing its past or have seen your cat go through a traumatic experience, it’s important to remember that the physical and mental recovery will occur at their own pace.
If your cat is recovering from a fight with a rival, it may not exhibit the same level of confidence that it did in her previous confrontations. Similarly, if a cat experienced a frightening event, it may associate fear with the objects around it, and sometimes this may not make sense to the owner. No matter how much you try, you may not be able to erase your cat’s feelings about the past.
What you can do is remind your cat constantly that in the present moment, it is loved and is offered comfort. With your soothing, your cat may slowly forget and recover from night terrors.
Should You Be Concerned?
In the majority of the cases, a cat trembling in its sleep is not a cause for concern. However, it is vital to pay attention to any unusual behavior during your cat’s sleep and look out for any persistent or rapid movements.
If your cat is having a night terror as a result of remembering traumatic experiences, biting, growling, thrashing, hissing, clawing and thrashing are a manifestation that can be addressed by the owner.
If your cat’s night terrors are not violent enough to physically harm you or your cat, try waking your cat and offering it some care and affection.
Cats respond well when they are awakened to being gently loved and coddled. In most cases, prevention is better than intervention as it avoids the risk of physical harm.
To instill positive memories, try engaging your cat in playtime activities. This will also help in expending any extra energy, keeping them calm and relaxed after playtime is over.
Medical Problems That Affect Sleep in Cats
It’s vital to note that certain medical conditions can disrupt a cat’s sleep cycle as well. The following are some common disorders in cats that may affect their sleep.
Hyperthyroidism, caused by hyperactivity of the thyroid gland is a common cause of sleep disruption in cats. Located in the neck, the thyroid gland plays a significant role in regulating the body’s metabolism and other major activities. The older the cat gets, the higher her susceptibility for hyperthyroidism.
Hyperthyroidism is often accompanied by unexplained weight loss, changes in quality of the cat’s coat and changes in thirst and appetite. The condition may cause a cat to become more vocal during the night as well. In fact, unexplained yowling in the night is among the most common reasons cat owners end up taking their cat to the vet. In most cases, the diagnosis is hyperthyroidism.
2) Upper Respiratory Tract Infections
Your cat may have trouble sleeping or be unwilling to sleep if it isn’t able to breathe well or has an upper respiratory infection. Brachycephalic cats, such as Persians, who have snubbed noses, are susceptible to upper respiratory tract infections. Another risk factor is cats that have heart failure or pleural effusion, caused by a fluid accumulation between the lungs and walls of the chest.
Cats that have sleeping difficulties from respiratory disorders may show signs of abnormal breathing. If you suspect your cat is breathing unusually, see a vet immediately.
3) Cognitive Decline
Some senior cats experience sleep issues due to cognitive decline, such as dementia. If you have an older cat aged 11 or above that is showing signs of cognitive impairment, such as staring at nothing for prolonged periods, seek help from a vet as soon as possible. Cats older than 15 years have a 50 percent higher chance of developing age-related cognitive decline.
Seizures commonly begin during sleep. While grand mal seizures are easily recognizable, petit mal seizures are often less dramatic and may be difficult to detect.
Cat Nightmare or Seizure?
Seizures can take several forms, from a subtle loss of awareness for a brief period to violent, uncontrolled, jerking movements. The former often goes unnoticed by most people. Unprovoked, repetitive seizures are called epilepsy.
While it is common for cats to twitch, tremble and sometimes cry slightly in their sleep, frequent involuntary movements, foaming in the mouth area and drool may indicate a seizure.
Epileptic seizures can be triggered by excitement or may take place when a cat is waking up or going to sleep, as there is a change in her brain activity during this time. A cat’s first epileptic seizure may occur when she is 2 or 3 years old.
Feline seizures occur when the cerebral cortex in the brain functions unusually. The body responds to this unusual brain function by losing voluntary function, resulting in intense, jerking movements that are characteristic of a seizure.
Types of Feline Seizures
Feline seizures are generally classified as follows:
- Generalized seizures. The entire cerebral cortex causes the seizure, affecting the whole body.
- Focal seizures (or partial seizures). A localized region in the cerebral cortex causes the seizure resulting in seizures of specific parts in the body.
How To Tell When a Cat is Having a Seizure
The symptoms for focal seizures are different from those of generalized seizures in cats. A cat having a focal seizure may cry at the top of its voice, as if in pain. The cat may also behave aggressively, even if it isn’t normally an aggressive cat. Some cats may lose function of one limb, face difficulty getting up, appear zoned out or chew unnecessarily.
Other symptoms of focal seizures include drooling or salivating excessively, and other abnormal behaviors. Sometimes a focal seizure may transform into a generalized seizure.
In the case of a generalized seizure, a cat may lose consciousness. While unconscious, the cat may fall over and begin shaking and twitching uncontrollably. The length and severity of a generalized seizure can vary from one cat to another. A cat may move her legs as if she’s trying to swim, or her body may become straight and rigid.
Some cats may exhibit involuntary opening and closing of the mouth. Generalized seizures can also cause a cat’s head to arch back, or her body to roll on the floor until it’s stopped by a wall. In some cases, cats may urinate or defecate involuntarily.
What Are the Causes of Seizures in Cats?
The most common cause is exposure to toxins, such as from flea and tick medication, dips, sprays, and shampoos. These products often contain Pyrethrin, which is a known cause of seizures.
Pyrethrin is typically used in over-the-counter flea and tick treatments. Pyrethroids and other chemicals often affect the nervous system of cats, resulting in stumbling, muscle tremors, and seizures.
Cats may also have seizures if they’ve had previous head trauma. For example, if a cat has incurred a head injury by getting hit by a cat or by falling from a balcony, it may experience internal damage that can cause it to seize.
Other causes include, brain tumors, viruses, and parasite infections. Some cats may also have epilepsy for no known cause.
Here’s what you should do when your cat has a seizure:
- Avoid Panicking. During a seizure, a cat is unconscious, which means it is not suffering. Sometimes, a cat may appear as if it isn’t breathing even though it is.
- Time Your Cat’s Seizure. Check the time and note it down. Even though most feline seizures last only 30 seconds, it can feel like forever for many owners.
- Keep Kids Away. A seizing cat can injure a small child due to her uncontrolled, aggressive movements. A cat having a seizure can also be scary for young kids and may affect them emotionally. Therefore, make sure your kids are in a separate room.
- Prevent Your Cat From Hurting Herself. Your cat may be moving violently during a seizure. Placing a pillow under your cat’s head can help prevent head trauma.
- Note the Type of Abnormal Behavior. Take note of the type of physical activity or unusual behavior your cat exhibits during her seizure. Your vet may ask you to record the length, date, time, and type of activity in every seizure.
- Don’t Put Your Hand or Other Objects in Your Cat’s Mouth. Cats don’t swallow their tongues. Putting your hand inside your cat’s mouth may put you at risk of getting bitten. Avoid putting a spoon or small spatula in her mouth as well.
- Seek Emergency Help if Seizure Lasts Longer than 5 Minutes. Call your vet or a veterinary emergency clinic immediately.
- Stay with Your Pet. Rub and comfort your pet so that when she comes out of the seizure, you’ll be there to soothe her.
After the Seizure
After your cat’s seizure is over, follow these steps:
- Pay attention to your cat’s post-seizure behavior and prevent any access to the stairs until it is fully recovered.
- Keep your cat indoors and offer it some water.
- Remain strong and calm as your pet needs your support. Your cat may stumble or become more vocal following her seizure.
- Talk to your cat in a soothing voice as it may be confused following her seizure and feel as though it did something wrong.
- Call your vet if your cat hasn’t entirely recovered within 30 minutes.
Treatment for Feline Seizures
If the cause is unknown, your vet may treat your cat with medication to control the severity and frequency of her seizures. If seizures aren’t frequent, your vet may not prescribe any medication due to the side effects associated with them.
If seizures are caused due to a toxin, it will have to be removed from the cat’s body. Your cat may be bathed if it was treated with a topical flea treatment containing Pyrethrin or induced to vomit if it ingested a toxin. Alternatively, a vet may administer certain medications to counter the toxin’s effects in the cat’s body.
Cats do dream during sleep, but you still need to be able to tell the difference between a nightmare and a seizure in cats. Once you understand the cause of your cat’s restlessness during sleep, you’ll also feel better. You’ll know whether your cat needs medical assistance or just reassurance.