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Cats love to sleep and spend around 12 to 16 hours every day sound getting some shut-eye. I love watching my cat curled up looking peaceful and cozy, happily dozing off into dreamland. Occasionally, I see her little paws, tail, and whiskers start to twitch as she enters the deeper levels of sleep.
This got me thinking, why does my cat twitch in her sleep? Interestingly, this is usually indicative of a cat having a dream. Many people think that dreaming is solely a human ability, but science shows that cats and other animals dream as well. What about we will never know for sure!
To help you understand more about why your cat is twitching while sleeping, I’ll cover the different stages of sleeping and when dreaming is most likely. I’ll also delve into how you can give your kitty the perfect sleeping setup to help facilitate deep sleep and dreaming.
Finally, I will talk about seizures in cats. Although cat seizures while sleeping are not common, they can occur from time to time. And, while a little twitching is normal and expected, there are a few types of abnormal twitching you should also be aware of.
Why Is My Cat Twitching In Her Sleep?
My cat shakes while he sleeps pretty often, which initially caused me to worry that something was wrong. However, after doing some research, I discovered that the main reason for a cat twitching while sleeping is nothing to worry about: it is usually a sign that they are dreaming.
In fact, twitching while asleep is normal behavior for most cats and shows that your cat is getting a good night’s sleep. Dreaming only occurs during a phase of sleep called rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Therefore, if your furry friend is twitching, they likely feel extremely relaxed, safe, and comfortable, so hats off for making your cat feel so at home!
If you want further proof that your cat is away in dreamland, other symptoms of dreaming include:
- Purring: Cats do purr when they sleep for several reasons, but when combined with twitching it nearly always indicates that a cat is dreaming.
- Body Movements: Aside from twitching, some cats make bigger body movements in their sleep when dreaming. Examples are kneading the air with their paws, wriggling their ears, or moving their head from side to side.
- Loss of Muscle Tone: Scientifically known as atonia, cats that are dreaming will experience loss of muscle tone as their bodies relax, despite their twitching muscles.
What Are The Different Stages of Sleep?
To better understand how cats dream, we need to understand the cat sleep cycle and the different stages of sleep. This can be split into three: light sleep, deep sleep, and REM sleep.
1. Light Sleep
When first falling asleep or if taking a catnap, cats will be in the light sleep stage. You will know that your cat is at this part of the cycle as their bodies will still respond to changes in the environment. Despite relaxing, they are still clearly aware of their environment and alert.
For example, when taking a catnap, their ears may still prick up or move in response to sounds despite the rest of your cat’s body being relaxed and unmoving. They may also have one eye open so they are aware of their surroundings while the other is closed. However, sleeping with one eye open is a common cat sleeping position when sick with eye infections, so watch out for other symptoms!
This light sleep developed in cats as a natural defense mechanism. In the wild, it enabled cats to get some sleep and regain energy without being entirely vulnerable or at risk of being attacked by predators. If anything dangerous was to occur, they’d be able to register this quickly and choose an appropriate course of action for their best chance of survival.
Although these risks don’t apply to domestic felines as they have safe and loving homes, this type of sleep persists in the cats we keep as pets. It is hardwired into their DNA and passed on through evolution and natural selection. In fact, although cats appear to sleep for hours on end, they are not truly sleeping for the majority of the day – instead, they’re catnapping!
2. Deep Sleep
When cats are not catnapping, they are usually in deep sleep. This sleep phase accounts for the majority of the time spent sleeping as it is the most important part of sleep. It is when your cat’s body can start to repair, grow, and develop, allowing for effective energy recovery and physical renewal. Without deep sleep, cats may be depressed and get sick more easily.
Despite deep sleep is vital for physical and mental strength, cats that feel uncomfortable or unsafe in their homes may never enter deep sleep. Therefore, it is great to provide an optimal sleeping environment for your cat to make them feel at ease and get the best possible slumber. Some of the things you can do to make your home more welcoming include:
- Providing a designated bed for your cat that they know is theirs
- Choosing a bed that is padded and has high sides so they feel comfortable and protected
- Raising their bed above ground level so they feel safe from floor-level threats
- Placing their bed in an area of your home that is the optimum temperature for cats
As deep sleep is so important, you should also never attempt to wake your cat during this stage of rest. Thankfully, it is easy to tell if your cat is sleeping deeply so you know when to leave them alone. The most obvious difference is in their body position. It will be completely relaxed, often stretching out on one side or curling up into a cozy ball.
Moreover, many cats cover their face when they sleep during the deep sleep phase. As they are not catnapping and don’t need to be aware of their surroundings, it helps to put their paw over their faces. This blocks out the light and noises and means they are less likely to be disturbed from their slumber.
3. REM Sleep
The final stage of sleep in cats is REM sleep, which stands for rapid eye movement sleep. As the name suggests, your cat’s eyes will move back and forth behind closed lids during this stage of sleep. Their breathing rate will increase, as will their heart rate, and during this sleeping phase, it is more normal for a cat to snore.
REM sleep is also the stage in which dreaming occurs in cats. This is the same stage of sleep in which humans dream. Therefore, if your cat is twitching while sleeping, you can be pretty sure that they are at this part of their sleeping cycle and off in some imaginary land in their head.
Most cats will enter the first stage of REM sleep approximately 90 minutes after initially falling deeply asleep. They will then stay here for 10 to 15 minutes before going back to deep sleep. The cycle between these two phases then continues repeatedly until your cat wakes up when they feel well-rested and restored.
As the deep sleep cycle always follows REM sleep, vets advise it is important to not wake your cat up during this stage as well. As I have already said, deep sleep is vital for your cat’s health and wellbeing, so letting them get some shuteye is key for a happy healthy kitty.
Why Do Cats Only Twitch During REM Sleep?
You may be wondering why twitching occurs during REM sleep and not the other two stages of the sleep cycle. Interestingly, this is all to do with an increase in brain activity.
During this sleep phase, specialized cells in the brain called neurons fire rapidly and new neural connections are formed. This surge in brain activity can cause some neurons to misfire and cause random movement, a.k.a. twitching! However, in deep sleep and light sleep, the brain is much less active as the body is focused on growth and repair.
The increased brain activity is also what is responsible for a cat’s increased breathing rate and heart rate in REM sleep. These two things are controlled by your cat’s brain, which sends impulses to the organs telling them to work. In REM sleep, these neural impulses are sent more frequently, increasing the resting rate. Of course, the more active the brain, the more your cat’s imagination runs wild, which is why scientists believe cats dream during this sleep phase.
The reason for this increased brain activity is related directly to its function. Instead of encouraging and promoting growth and healing like deep sleep, REM sleep’s function is to improve learning and memory. The way cat’s brains store information in their long-term memory is to fire the same neural pathways over again and again.
By firing the same neuron sequence repeatedly, the connections between these cells in their brain are strengthened. Next time your cat wants to draw on something from their memory or show a learned behavior, the cells will find it easier to communicate and thus easier to remember the information. So, while your cat is twitching and dreaming, they are also learning!
One thing I discovered that is really interesting is that the amount of REM sleep decreases as cats get older. This means that kittens are much more likely to dream when sleeping than an older cat is. Therefore, you may notice younger cats twitch in their sleep much more than senior felines.
One explanation for this is that kittens have more active brains eager to learn about the world around them. As such, they need to spend more time in this REM sleep phase so that the things they have learned that day are solidified, which is done by the same neural pathways firing repeatedly. Entering this stage of the sleep cycle more regularly naturally means more dreaming for kittens, too.
What Is My Cat Dreaming About?
Now I know why my cat shakes when he sleeps, I can’t help but wonder what he is dreaming about in his little head. And next time you spot your cat twitching in its sleep, I’m sure you’ll have the same thoughts. You’ll be desperate to know if your furry friend is having a sweet dream or a nightmare!
Obviously, there is no way to tell this for sure – we cannot read our cat’s minds! However, according to veterinary experts, we can make pretty well-educated guesses based on their life experience and the movements of their bodies during this sleep phase.
The most popular opinion is that cats predominantly dream about hunting. This is based on the larger body movements often seen, such as your cat moving its head as if it has its eyes on something ready to pounce. When your cat is twitching in its sleep, it could well be dreaming about catching a tasty mouse for dinner or chasing after a little bird.
Research also suggests cats often dream about activities that have occurred earlier that day or in the near past. This could be anything from them getting their dinner, exploring a new area outside on their adventures, or snuggling up on the couch with you and links with the idea of REM sleep being crucial for memory and learning.
However, dreams aren’t always nice, and there is a possibility that when your cat is twitching and shaking while sleeping it is having a nightmare. We don’t know this for definite, but some studies found that cats can suddenly wake up from REM sleep seeming to be frightened, which makes nightmares a suitable explanation.
Additionally, cats that have been through trauma in their lives tend to jolt wide awake from REM sleep more frequently than cats that have lived their entire lives easy and comfortable. These cats make stressed noises when they sleep and often wake up with wide eyes among other signs of shock and distress. Again, bad dreams make sense here.
Is My Cat Having Seizures While Sleeping?
As I have explained already, the reason why my cat twitches in her sleep is usually down to her dreaming. She is in the REM sleep stage where rapid breathing, an increased heart rate, eye movements, and involuntary muscles spasms occur.
However, there is a very slim chance that your cat is shaking in its sleep as it is having a seizure which happens when its brain functions abnormally. Thankfully, cat seizures when sleeping looks completely different from healthy twitching. Rather than looking peaceful and relaxed, all the muscles in their bodies will tense and shake in a jerky way.
You’ll be pleased to hear that it is extremely extremely rare for seizures to happen during sleep, and it is much more common to see seizures when your cat is awake. However, it can happen when falling asleep or first waking up. When having a seizure, cats will show other symptoms too, including:
- Suddenly collapsing or walking unsteadily
- Foaming at the mouth
- Loss of appetite and/or vomiting
- Urinating involuntarily
- Losing consciousness
- Cat sleeping more than usual
- Acting strangely or appearing to be confused
If you think your cat is having a seizure rather than dreaming, it is vital to take them to the vet as soon as possible. The vet will try and determine the underlying disease that is causing the seizures, which in turn determines the right treatment.
Where possible, medication to target the underlying condition will be prescribed. However, many medical conditions that have seizures as a clinical sign are untreatable. In these cases, a medication called anticonvulsants which work to prevent the symptom of seizures will be prescribed instead.
Why Else Could My Cat Be Twitching?
There is also a third type of twitching when your cat is asleep that could indicate some kind of skin condition or infection. This twitching is very different from both dream-like twitched and chirping and whole body seizures. Instead, it is usually localized to one area that is inflamed or in pain. You will also be able to pick up on other symptoms that indicate something is wrong.
A couple of examples of what could be causing this include the following.
1. Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome
Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrom (FHS), also known as rolling skin disease, could be the cause of your cat’s skin twitching along their spine as they sleep. The twitching has an unusual rippling effect that rolls up and down the length of the spine. It can affect cats of any age, breed, or sex, but usually presents after a cat has reached maturity.
Aside from the rippling of the skin on their spine, other clinical signs of FHS include:
- Acting aggressively towards people and other animals
- Excessive self-grooming, especially the lumbar region of their spine
- Tail chasing, biting, and scratching
- Increased vocalizations
- Uncontrolled urination
These symptoms occur in episodes that usually last for a couple of minutes. If an episode hits while your cat is sleeping, they will usually wake up and start attacking their skin. It is important to note that the rolling of skin along the spine can occur in cats without this condition. The activation of a muscle called the cutaneous trunci is responsible for the twitching and can be activated when scratching.
If you do think your cat has FHS, you should take them to the vet. Unfortunately, this disease is poorly understood and the cause of FHS isn’t known, making the condition hard to diagnose. Your vet will have to rule out other conditions for diagnosis which can make it time-consuming and costly.
2. External Parasitic Infection
External parasitic infections in cats are common, particularly fleas. These are spread to your cat from other animals they interact with, making outdoor cats much more likely to contract them. Fleas make your cat itchy and sore, which can lead to sudden and unexpected twitching.
One of the main places for fleas to hide is on the skin directly at the base of a cat’s tail. If you see twitching when your cat is sleeping focused in this area, fleas are a likely culprit! The twitching will also occur when your cat is awake, and you may even be able to spot the fleas in your cat’s fur. You may notice scabs, red and irritated skin, and hair loss due to excessive scratching.
Fleas aren’t the only parasite to infect cats, and ear mites can also cause twitching. These nasty creepy crawlies hide in the ears of cats and kittens and cause inflammation and itching. They will produce an excess of ear wax and may produce foul-smelling dark dry discharge. If your cat has ear mites, you may notice their ears twitch while they sleep as these parasites disrupt their slumber.
For any type of parasitic infection, take your cat to the vet is a good idea. There is a range of different treatments for fleas, ticks, and mites, but a professional will always be able to recommend an effective one for you to try.
MY FINAL THOUGHTS
So, why does my cat twitch in her sleep? The majority of the time, when a cat twitching in sleep it means they are dreaming – perhaps of chasing after their favorite toy, catching prey, or reliving one of their favorite moments from the day before. Enjoy watching your cat in dreamland and imagine all the things that could be going on in their head.
With that being said, if you notice any abnormal twitching you should bring this up with your vet. Stiff and jolty shaking could be a seizure, but cat seizures while sleeping are highly unlikely. If the twitching is localized to one area or seems to disturb your cat, it could be down to parasites or FHS.
If at all in doubt, why not record a video next time you see your cat twitching in her sleep? Within a few seconds, a vet will be able to tell you whether this behavior is normal or something to worry about.