All pet owners who have watched their furry friend sleeping will at some point have asked themselves this question. Moving feet, twitching ears, those super cute noises coming from their bed are just some of the signs their minds are elsewhere.
But just where are they? Are they chasing birds on a summer’s day? Pouncing on their favourite toy? Gorging themselves on delicious food? Or are they simply experiencing some kind of unconscious reflex?
Do pets dream?
Let’s have a little look at the evidence!
During the 1960s in France, some horrific experiments (by today’s standards) were performed on cats. Inhumane as they were, what was discovered offered great insight into not only our favourite companions, but also ourselves.
Scientists surgically removed a part of the brain known as the pons from a number of cats In humans, we know the pons works to stops us moving around whilst we are in R.E.M (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, the sleep phase in which we dream.
By removing this brain structure, the cats wandered around, vocalised and acted aggressively whilst asleep. This strongly suggested that they were dreaming, involuntarily experiencing images and sensations in their minds but no longer able to restrict their body from physically responding to them.
Without their pons, we were not only able to confirm that our pets dream but were able to actually see what they are dreaming about!
Thankfully, modern day science has progressed in its approach since then. In 2007, scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) looked at electrical pathways of the hippocampus (the part of the brain involved in memory) in rats as they navigated their way through a maze for the first time.
Amazingly, they found the same neurones were firing when the rats were awake and learning as afterwards) in their REM sleep. In other words, the scientists inferred the rats were ‘rehearsing’ the maze in their minds during sleep. It was even possible to pinpoint certain tricky parts of the maze that the rats were specifically thinking about!
But are our pets self-conscious?
With dreaming in our pets confirmed, the tricky bit comes down to consciousness. Do they realise they are dreaming? Do they remember the dream after they wake up? And if they do, can they distinguish between what they experienced when they were asleep versus when they are awake?
What do you think? Have you ever seen your pet dreaming?
Life on Four Legs is a Veterinary Behaviour Consultation Service run by practicing Vet Dr Julie Ashton in Sydney, Australia.