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Do Animals Dream?

By R. Kayne
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Dreams have always been a subject of intense fascination. From oddly fantastic flying dreams to the classic fleeing dream, from mundanely nonsensical dreams to inspirational dreams, dreams intrigue us, inspire, chill or soothe us. The question of whether animals dream is a fascinating one.

Many animal owners believe their pets dream. Sleeping pets commonly display dream-like behavior, starting with twitching eyelids and facial tics that often progress to animated paws or legs moving in like motion. A choked whimper or growl might issue from the throat, all appearing to indicate the animal is dreaming. That still leaves the question of what kind of dreams animals have, and what purpose they serve.

Studies conducted in 2000 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), led Cambridge researchers to believe that not only do animals dream, but their dreams can be highly complex involving long sequences of replayed waking events. Results, published in the 25 January 2001 issue of the Neuron journal, suggested that rats trained to run a track dreamed about their experiences.

In the MIT studies, rats ran a circular maze for a reward while researchers mapped the animals’ brain activity using electrodes. Scientists found that neurons fired in a specific pattern, depending on the rat’s position along the maze, and whether it was moving or standing still. Scientists also noted neural activity took place in the hippocampus, the area associated with memory.

While the animals slept, electrodes continued to record brain activity. Like humans, rats experience various stages of sleep, moving from slow-wave sleep to rapid eye movement or REM sleep (where humans do their dreaming).

MIT researchers studied over 40 REM recordings from the rats. When the animals slept, about half of them repeated the signature neural pattern seen during the waking maze exercise. The correlation was so precise scientists could pinpoint where the dreaming rat was in the maze, and whether it was sitting or running. They concluded that reactivating memories could be a mechanism for instilling the experience into long-term memory, making a good case for at least one reason why animals dream. A rat that remembered how to navigate the maze by "practicing in its sleep" was more assured of food.

Prior to these studies scientists assumed only a relative few species of animals such as dolphins and primates were capable of recalling complex memories built around multiple, sequential events. MIT researchers now conclude it seems likely that most animals dream and are capable of more complex thought processes than scientists previously thought.

While the fact that animals dream is, by itself, interesting, there are also practical applications for humans. By studying how memory is formed and which experiences are relived and retained, researchers hope to find help for victims of memory disorders like amnesia and diseases such as Alzheimer's.

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Discussion Comments
By anon979112 — On Nov 23, 2014

It would be interesting to determine if the rats were simply repeating an earlier successful run (replayed memory) or if they're remembering the maze and actually rehearsing based on their memory of the successful run. A significant difference.

By anon191788 — On Jun 29, 2011

This proved very useful to me, since I am writing a story currently about wolves that live through their dreams. Plus, animals twitching in their sleep is the same as humans snoring while catching Z's. However, it would make perfect sense for animals to dream.

By anon170267 — On Apr 25, 2011

this post suffers from huge lack of research!! It does not prove at all that animals dream, because REM sleep does not equal dreaming: dreaming occurs at some points in REM sleep (but research strongly suggests that it happens in NREM sleep too), but the main function of REM sleep is not at all dreaming! Dreaming remains a pretty big physiological mystery.

What the MIT study proves is that animals experience REM sleep (something we know since the 50's - in fact REM sleep was discovered partly thanks to animals!) and that learning occurs during this phase. nothing tells us that they dream.

By anon163206 — On Mar 26, 2011

I'm sure my dog and my cat dream. My dog's leg flies around like he is running, and my cat is totally still while the end of his tail swings around. from what i see the animals mentioned here are all mammals. Has anyone researched if reptiles, like snakes, lizards, tortoises, turtles dream? is it possible to wire them up while they sleep? just curious!

By anon162131 — On Mar 22, 2011

since dreaming is controlled by the brain, and we know that the brain has the ability to make the body believe what it says, then dreams would mean what we want it to mean, and would have every implication we want them to have.

By anon162124 — On Mar 22, 2011

since we can now safely say that they dream, but the bigger question now surfaces: why? Why do we all dream?

By anon122366 — On Oct 27, 2010

It is my belief that all species of animal and invertebrates dream.

Their dreams may not be anywhere near as intelligible as our dreams but it is my belief that they do.

Freud [and his successors] have suggested that dreams have a very real role to play in our sanity so why not all species and not just our own! I want to research this.

By anon117184 — On Oct 09, 2010

Nice article! I remember seeing a video clip of a cat that had been injected with something to counteract the physical paralysis aspect of sleep. The cat, while asleep, was jumping, pouncing and leaping all over the place. Perhaps we developed sleep in order to dream.

By anon61280 — On Jan 19, 2010

Has anyone seen their cats dreaming? I've only owned two cats, both for 13 years. They did dream, but usually woke up briefly to change positions or just let out a soft "cooing" sound (female).

My male cat used to snore while sleeping on his back in a deep sleep and when I believed him to be dreaming his tail would swing back and forth slow, then fast. Sometimes the snoring would stop for a different vocal sound, all the while his tail kept going.

By anon59768 — On Jan 10, 2010

We will never know until an animal tells us, but from what we see them do when they are asleep tends to make us think that they are dreaming. Right?

Who has watched animals sleeping other than cats and dogs?

Zookeepers, vets and farmers are about the only

people who have watched animals other than cats and dogs sleeping. Of course it comforts Grannie and Auntie to think that her Fido is having a dream!

By anon59477 — On Jan 08, 2010

since animals experience the REM stage like humans then i believe they have dreams. but whether the animals remember or what they dream of is another question entirely.

By anon58978 — On Jan 05, 2010

I know that my Abby dreams. She is a shelter dog. She will sometimes whimper and move in her sleep. I think she is remembering the times she was living out on the streets. i have to awaken her and comfort her to make her stop.

Of course,animals dream. They also have souls and go to heaven.

Any loving dog or cat owner who has looked into the pet's eyes and have had the look returned know these things to be factual!

;)) Suzy

By anon58951 — On Jan 05, 2010

nah, sorry. don't believe it. whatever they're doing, they ain't dreaming.

By anon58933 — On Jan 05, 2010

My dog loves me so much that i think he is a person. He follows me everywhere, will only eat food after i have been the court taster to make sure it is not poisoned. He jumps on the bed and lies on my stomach so i cannot move and gets physically sick when i leave him for even a short time. he acts as if i have been gone for ages, so could dogs be actually people?

By anon58929 — On Jan 05, 2010

Memories, especially of the cognizant animal that evolution has enabled it to survive-- i.e. problem solving and remembering the pattern and the solution-- are inevitable.

We (including the animals mentioned) relive our experiences through dreams in order to process the information we have, the experiences we have, and to make sense of the world we live in. Regardless of the content of the dream itself, it is always about something much larger and important than the dream's specifics. But we can never dream anything other than our experiences, nor ever see in the dreams anything other than what we have seen in real life. Where would we get some imagery but from what we've seen?

I am a retired English teacher and know from working with students in writing exercises that what they experience is different from what I do, and that they cannot write about anything other than what they've seen, or experienced. And we dream in the color we see in! Why would we do otherwise?

Yet the statement that we often hear is, "I dream in black and white." Why on earth would we do that? It's because we experience dreams as events, and until photography entered the experiences of most of the world, the issue of dreaming in black and white appears in no literature whatsoever prior to the invention of photography. The earliest photos were originally in black, white, and gray.

We think we dream in black and white simply because the very first thing we lose in our memories is the color of things, well before the shape of them.

Thoughtful and well researched article, however, by wiseGEEK. Bill

By anon58897 — On Jan 05, 2010

I used to watch all of my dogs throughout the years dream, especially after a day full of running and contact with other dogs. Our Golden Retriever was probably the funniest. She would start with the face twitching and the whimpering. She would then look as though she was going to take off running as her legs began to "run" while still lying there!

Sometimes it would be long enough for her to rub a little knot of fur into a ball on her other side lying on the carpet! Sometimes she would let out a bark, but mostly it was just whimpering. She would eventually stop and continue her deep sleep. We used to take her to the "Doggie Park" several times a week so after reading your article, so it sounds like she was reliving her time with her friends there! Thanks for the memories! Great article. C-A

By anon58886 — On Jan 05, 2010

Odd they didn't specifically mention dogs, because anyone who owns a dog know that dogs dream. You can see it plain as day.

And why would they not do so for the same reasons humans do, dreams are a natural and needed, required even, function of the brain. Since it is needed for a healthy brain to keep functioning would it matter which brain, should not all brains have the same basic need, requirement?

By anon58885 — On Jan 05, 2010

what's the purpose of dreaming?

By anon58868 — On Jan 05, 2010

Fascinating indeed. I enjoy watching my animals when they dream, you can see them enjoying the tasty treats as well. I noticed after having had surgery and anesthetic that my dreams were extremely vivid and threw many past experiences and people into the mix. A bit disturbing but as the meds wore off so did the extreme dreams.


By ivanka — On Dec 30, 2009

What a fascinating concept. Probably dreams serve a deeper, more serious role that we do not fully understand at this time.

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