Your cat always seems to be napping. It curls up on the windowsill, the newspaper, the sofa, or your lap for a quick snooze at least a few times each day, and that’s perfectly normal. In fact, experts have found that cats are only awake for about five to nine hours a day. It’s obvious that your feline takes a lot of cat naps, but what is she doing while she sleeps? Does she have nighttime fantasies about mice and catnip? Well, you might be wondering for a long time. Experts say that cats dream, but they’re not exactly sure what they dream about yet.
Cat Sleep Cycles
The sleep behavior of cats is similar to that of humans in many ways. Just like us, cats go through various sleep stages. In stage one, they become dreamy and sleepy, but they’re still hovering close to alertness. Their ears may twitch when they hear sounds, and they’ll open their eyes if they hear something rustle beside them. In stage two, their brain wave activity becomes more rhythmic, their heart rate slows down and their temperature drops. In stage three, cats transition between light sleep and deep sleep. In stage four, they enter deep sleep. Stage five is rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep.
Cats may cycle through stages two through five repeatedly during a slumber. However, since most cat naps are short, they may not enter every stage of sleep. When cats enter REM sleep, they begin to dream. Scientists once called this stage paradoxical sleep. During this process, a feline’s vital signs become similar to those of an animal that’s awake. However, they’re very difficult to wake up during this time. Their paws and faces may twitch, their tails may flicker and their skin may look like it’s crawling.
Make no mistake, cats are deeply relaxed when they’re in REM sleep. Although the spasms may make it look like your pet is tense, he is actually so calm that he can’t hold his head up. Cats are usually curled up or lying on their sides during REM sleep. How is it possible for your cat to twitch its whiskers or run its paws if its muscles are completely slack? Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that works to regulate the activity of the large muscles. During the other stages of sleep, serotonin neurons are working to command muscular activities. In REM sleep, serotonin neurons don’t fire. And because serotonin doesn’t control fine movements, smaller muscles can still move.
Is your kitty notorious for sleeping with its head held up? We call that the bread box position. Cats often sleep in a somewhat upright position, with their paws tucked under their bellies. This happens during non-REM sleep when the muscles are still active. The same thing happens to you if you fall asleep in a chair. At first, you’ll stay upright. As you drift off into REM sleep, though, you might slump down. You might even fall off the chair as your muscles fully relax.
What Do Cats Dream About?
Although researchers aren’t completely clear on the topic of cat dreams, one researcher uncovered some clues about dreaming and cat naps. In the latter half of the 20th century, physiologist Michael Jouvet found that when cats didn’t utilize the part of the brain that helps muscles relax during REM sleep, they ran around, hissing and scratching as though they were attacking an animal. This led him to believe that cats might dream about hunting.
This research also encouraged scientists to look at the sleep behavior of other mammals. It turns out that all mammals except the spiny anteater go through the REM stage of sleep. Predators spend more time in REM sleep than prey. That’s because they can feel confident that they’re not going to get eaten while they’re snoozing. Animals that have to watch their backs don’t fall into such deep sleep.
In the wild, felines are predators. Domestic cats are instilled with a natural propensity for predatory sleep behavior. They get a burst of energy early in the morning and as the sun is going down. In their native habitat, these are their hunting times. Felines tend to hide out and sleep in the middle of the day and night, a time period when other predators might be looking for them.