Waking a dog from a bad dream may seem like a no-brainer, but are dogs really experiencing bad dreams when they are whining in their sleep? How can we know for sure? What we know so far is that, just like humans, dogs go through several sleep stages and there is a dreaming stage too. Veterinarian Dr. Ivana discusses whether dogs should be awakened or whether it's safer to let sleeping dogs lie.
Dreaming in Dogs
In case you were wondering, dogs dream the same way humans do. During deep or activated sleep, dogs may experience rapid eye movement (REM),a stage during which they may paddle with their feet, twitch their lips and noses, and sometimes even bark. The funny and popular "chasing rabbits" dream is perfectly normal and common in dogs.
The fact that the average dog sleeps for around 12 to 14 hours per day while shifting between nighttime sleep and day naps, leaves plenty of time for dreaming. But are all dreams good? Can dogs have nightmares? Are dogs prone to sleeping disorders?
During sleep, dogs experience several different stages. The first stage is wakefulness, the second stage is called REM (rapid eye movement) and the third stage is non-rapid-eye-movement sleep. The highly vivid and memorable dreams occur during the REM sleep period.
What do dogs dream about? A recent, breakthrough research showed that dogs dream about well…dog things – chasing cats, playing tug-of-war, fetching balls and eating tasty table scraps (not recommended in real life).
In a nutshell, the dog’s dreams are closely related to its daily activities. This suggests that the dog’s breed is likely to affect what the dog dreams about. For example, a Golden Retriever is more likely to dream about chasing balls than is a Maltese Dog. Following the same logic, a Chihuahua is more likely to dream about snoozing in a fashionable, oversized bag than is a Belgian Shepherd.
The same study also showed that small dogs dream more frequently than large dogs, but their dreams tend to be relatively short. On the other hand, large dogs dream rarely but when they do, they have longer dreams.
Can Dogs Have Nightmares (Bad Dreams)?
Yes. Just like in humans, not all dog dreams are pleasant and fun. Some dreams can be scary, even frightening.
Witnessing a dog having a nightmare can be a hard thing to watch. However, once again, same as in humans, bad dreams are just as normal and common as good dreams.
Should You Wake a Dog From a Bad Dream?
Remember the last time you had nightmares and woke up scared and confused? When we wake up after a bad dream, we often need a moment or two to remember where we are and what is going on. Well, the same concept applies to dogs.
While it may seem tempting to wake a dog up from a bad dream and end its nightmare, we highly advise you not to do that. Namely, when abruptly woken up from a bad dream, dogs may react aggressively towards the person waking them up.
This aggression is not due to poor behavior. It is a result of disorientation and fear. However, the consequences can be dangerous regardless of what originally triggered them. Simply put, trying to wake your dog up form a bad dream is likely to cost you a scratch or even a bite wound.
The best way of helping your dog is letting it awake on its own. Once it is fully awake start comforting it in a loving and affectionate manner. This may sound cruel but it is the safest option for both you and your dog. There is even an old saying - "let sleeping dogs lie."
Sleep Disorders in Dogs
Do dogs suffer from sleep disorders? The answer is yes. There are four known sleep disorders in dogs.
Narcolepsy –this is a genetic disorder primarily affecting young puppies. It occurs as a result of low levels of hypocretin (a chemical necessary for maintaining normal sleeping patterns and alertness) and is quite common among Poodles, Labrador Retrievers and Doberman Pinschers.
A dog with narcolepsy falls asleep suddenly, often after pronounced excitement or vigorous physical activity. Loud noises and petting will make the dog wake up abruptly. Sadly, there is no known cure. However, narcolepsy can be managed by eliminating the triggering events and factors.
Insomnia – extremely rare in dogs. If it occurs, it is usually due to another medical condition that triggers pain, discomfort, irritation or even increased need for urinating or defecating. In older dogs, the age-related changes may disrupt the normal sleeping pattern and cause insomnia. To manage the disorder, the underlying cause must be properly addressed.
Sleep apnea – this issue is relatively rare in dogs. However, it tends to be more prevalent among overweight and brachycephalic dogs like Pugs and Bulldogs. A dog with sleeping apnea experiences temporary narrowing of even collapse of the airways which causes sleep interruptions.
If left untreated, this disorder can trigger life-threatening consequences. To manage the disorders, obese dogs must be put on a weight loss regimen while brachycephalic dogs need corrective surgeries.
REM behavior disorder – manifests with experiencing episodes of physical activity during sleep. In some dogs, that activity can be dangerous especially if it includes running into walls or attacking furniture.
Dogs with REM behavior disorder do not feel confused and disoriented after waking up. The treatment of choice is the drug clonazepam.
Good sleep is the key to good health. Sleep disorders in dogs cause sleep deprivation and sleep deprivation is directly linked with accumulation of harmful stress hormones.
Consequently, dogs with sleep deprivation are more likely to develop behavioral issues. What is more, sleep deprived dogs have weaker immune systems and are at higher risk of contracting infectious diseases.
Dog dreams and sleep disorders are just as common in dogs as they are in humans. Some dog dreams are fun and likely to keep your dog in a good mood throughout the day, while others are bad and likely to make your pooch sad and mellow.
Unlike dog dreams, sleep disorders are always a bad thing. A dog with a sleep disorder will feel tired and cranky the next day. Sleep disorders are also likely to have more permanent and serious consequences. Therefore, all sleep disorders are considered a medical emergency and warrant a trip to the vet’s office.
About the Author
Dr. Ivana Crnec is a graduate of the University Sv. Kliment Ohridski’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Bitola, Republic of Macedonia.