Why Do Dogs Twitch In Their Sleep? Are They Okay?

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Pretty funny hound dog sleeping on a sofa

If your dog occasionally twitches or looks like he’s trying to run when he’s snoozing, you may wonder what the heck is going on. Is he dreaming of something fun or frightening? Scientists have studied many aspects of animal sleep patterns and habits, and we’ll explore their findings about this typically normal canine behavior. But we also share the signs when excessive twitching or other movements during sleep could be a red flag.

Why Do Dogs Twitch In Their Sleep?

Many animals and humans twitch and make other movements in their sleep. And the consensus among experts is that it’s a physical manifestation of dreams. Yes, scientists believe that dogs and many other mammals dream just like humans do.

During these dream states, dogs exhibit involuntary physical movements like twitching various parts of their body or kicking (often called paddling) their legs. These are considered normal as long as an episode of motion lasts around 30 seconds or less and if these clusters of movement are intermittent, meaning that there are breaks in between each episode.

Why Does My Dog Whimper And Twitch In His Sleep?

In addition to minor body activity, some dogs and people also vocalize while they’re catching some z’s. If your pup whimpers, howls, or barks while sleeping, this could mean that he’s dreaming about something that would cause him to make these sounds when he’s awake.

For example, he whimpers because he’s having a nightmare about something threatening, or he barks because he’s excitedly chasing a squirrel in his dream. I’ve always found it fascinating that my pup occasionally howls in his sleep but has never howled when he’s awake.

What Happens When Dogs Sleep?

So, why do animals and people exhibit these unconscious behaviors while they’re asleep? It turns out that it’s due to brain activity during sleep stages, according to several scientists, including widely revered research by Stanley Coren, Ph.D., professor emeritus of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

Coren has conducted extensive research into canine sleep and has found that dog brain waves exhibit the same patterns and stages as those of humans — rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM. While dogs, humans, and other animals go through certain sleep phases, our brains are actively processing our experiences from our time awake.

During sleep, a safety switch in both the human and canine brain stem (called the pons) kicks in, causing our muscles to relax, so we don’t physically act out our dreams. While the pons prevents most muscle movement, it doesn’t suppress all of it. That’s why dogs and we twitch while we’re asleep. If you want to learn more about dog dreaming, check out Coren’s book, Do Dogs Dream? Nearly Everything Your Dog Wants You to Know.

Fun Fact: Experts think that dogs dream about every 20 minutes, with each dream lasting about one minute. But this is an average for all breeds. It’s believed that larger breeds dream nearly every 45 minutes for 4 minutes at a time, while smaller-breed dogs dream about every 10 minutes for up to 30 seconds.

When Should I Be Concerned About Sleep-Twitching?

While most twitching and minor movements are completely normal and not a cause for worry, some signs could indicate that your dog is having a seizure. Unlike brief twitches in some areas of the body, signs of a seizure can include:

  • Whole-body tremors that are longer in duration than simple twitching
  • Body going rigid
  • More exaggerated movements
  • Can’t easily be woken
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Panting, drooling, or seeming disoriented (after a seizure)

If you notice these signs, you should contact your veterinarian as soon as possible. Seizures can be caused by many conditions, such as epilepsy, cancer, liver or kidney disease, eating something poisonous, and more. Your vet needs to determine the cause and treat your pup accordingly.

Is It Bad To Wake My Dog When He’s Twitching?

Sure, it can be annoying if your dog is sleeping in bed next to you and he starts twitching, shaking, or kicking his legs. But most experts agree on the literal meaning of the old saying, “let sleeping dogs lie.” Usually, it’s not a good idea to wake up your pup while he’s sleeping — especially if he’s twitching or whimpering. Why?

The theory is that your dog could be having a nightmare, and if you wake him up, he could be startled or distressed. This could result in your pup attempting to bite you because he’s not fully aware of what’s going on. Instead, experts recommend calling your pup’s name instead of touching him until he awakens.

Fun Fact: It’s widely believed that the idiom “let sleeping dogs lie” originated in the 13th century from observations that dogs are frequently unpredictable when they’re suddenly disturbed. Geoffrey Chaucer used a Middle English version of the phrase in his poem Troilus and Criseyde, published in the 14th century.

What If My Puppy Twitches A Lot While Asleep?

Puppies tend to twitch in their sleep much more often than adult dogs. The theory behind this is that puppies’ brains are still developing, so the pons, the area of the brain stem responsible for quashing muscle movement during sleep stages, isn’t as effective as in adult canines. Interestingly, many senior dogs twitch more in their sleep than adults. Scientists think this may be because their brains (and other body functions) aren’t as capable as they used to be.

What Your Dog’s Sleeping Position Can Tell You

Now that you know that twitching is normal, you can appreciate how cute your puppy is when he does it. But that’s only one of many adorably funny things our furry friends do when they’re getting some shut-eye. Perhaps the goofiest is when they sprawl out on their back with their legs in the air.

Find out why dogs sleep on their backs and what other sleeping positions can tell you about your precious pupper. And if you’re wondering what else you can learn from your pup’s various ways of communicating with their bodies, check out our article on dog body language.

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