Do Animals Dream?

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I’ve always been pretty sure that the answer to “do animals dream?” was “yes”, just from my own observations. Our English Setter Danae seems to be a vivid dreamer – she’ll lie there in her sleep, feet twitching, making little woofing noises as if she’s chasing rabbits across a field.

If you have pets you’ve probably noticed something similar. But what does science have to say about it?

As it turns out, us pet owners are right:

Most mammals have similar sleep patterns to people, including periods of REM sleep. Rats, cats, and even birds have been shown to dream.

“Cats’ brain waves, eye movements, and muscle twitches clearly differentiate waking, nonREM, and REM sleep in a manner that is parallel to what people experience”, says dream scientist J. Allan Hobson.

But is this really dreaming? Do animals dream in the same way we do? How do we know that a dog twitching and making noises really is responding to images and memories of racing through fields?

Well, scientists have wondered the same thing, and have run tests to find out the answer.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, researchers trained rats to run a maze in a particular way, then monitored the electrical impulses of their brain cells while they did it. Then they ran the same monitoring tests while the animals slept, and found the same electrical patterns. The results were so accurate the scientists could tell exactly where the rat was in the dream maze, and even whether they were dreaming of running or standing still.

Do Animals Dream?

Other researchers have injected acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter associated with dreaming, into the brains of cats, and found it increased their periods of REM sleep.

Why do animals dream? Researchers believe it’s for the same reasons as human beings. Running the maze in dreams seems to help the rats learn and remember it better.

At a University of Chicago laboratory, researchers ran a similar study on zebra finches while they were learning the songs of their parents. Just like with the rats, the neurons in the brain fired in the same way when the birds were awake and listening to the songs, and when they were in REM sleep.

So, when your pet is twitching away in his sleep, he is probably reliving experiences of the day in just the same way we do, while his brain processes them into long term memories.