Creature Thoughts, February 2018: Animal Dreams

Last night, I was in bed, about to drift off. Ryder was asleep at the foot of the bed. I felt him start to twitch, and sensed his breath quicken. He lifted his head, still sound asleep, and let out a mournful, heart-breaking howl.

As most of you know, Ryder came to me at the death of his heart-human, my dear friend, Lin. She passed in December of 2015, a couple of months after Kai, and her family asked if I would give Ryder a home. Of course, there was no question in my mind that it was right, and three days after Lin passed away, he moved in with us.

Since then, Ryder has had frequent nightmares. At least several times a week, he will howl like this in his sleep. I’ll go to him, pet him, talk to him, and gently call him back to waking. Sometimes, like last night, it’s difficult to do so, and he’ll continue to cry in his sleep for a minute or two before he finally wakes up. Then, he’ll whimper and moan for a moment as he gets oriented, and settle down when he realizes that he’s not alone.

I have tried, many times, to get a focus on the images in his mind when he does this. Most often, when I can get anything at all, I see Lin, walking away, and feel the painful emotions of not being able to go with her. Is that what he is really dreaming? Is it my imagination because, to be honest, I miss his mum very badly, too? I guess only Ryder knows for sure.

Animal studies have shown that dogs (and all animals who experience REM sleep) do, in fact, dream. Following the electrical readings from various areas of the brain, it’s been shown that they often (as do people) dream of the things they experience when they are awake.

MIT studies on rats proved that the animals run the same mazes in their dreams they run when awake. Researchers have even received such accurate readings, by comparing daytime scans with the sleeping ones, that they can tell what section of the maze the dreaming rat is running.

Studies on Zebra Finches showed that they accurately reconstruct, during REM sleep, the songs they practiced during the day. I can easily believe this, as there have been many times I’ve heard my starlings talking quietly, only to discover that they’re sound asleep with beaks tucked into their shoulders.

An evolutionary psychologist at Harvard Medical School, Dr Deirdre Barrett, has surmised that dogs most likely dream of their owners. Their actions in sleep are very similar to the way they would respond to their owners during the day. This, of course, makes perfect sense, as most dogs’ primary attachment in life is to their beloved humans.

Ryder was Lin’s heart dog for eight and a half years before he came to live with me. It is no surprise that, over two years later, he is still dreaming of his mum—and missing her. Although it hurts me to see him having sad dreams, I would never, ever want him to forget her, after all. He was by her side during her long battle with cancer, and most of his life’s memories center around her. I (more and more as I get older) often dream of my childhood, my parents (who have been gone for years), and the things I did in my youth. It makes sense to me that Ryder, also, would dream of his younger days, and the person who filled them with love.

Cats also dream, of course. Anyone who has been owned by cats has spent time watching them in sleep, as their paws and whiskers twitch, and their eyes move under the lids. Although more studies have been done on dogs than on cats in this regard, those researchers who have observed cats sleeping (and more) suspect that when cats dream, they may be hunting in their sleep.

In both dogs and cats, though the thought horrifies me, studies have been done after removing the part of the brain (or otherwise inhibiting it) which keeps the body relatively immobile during sleep. If we didn’t have that area in our brain, we’d continually be doing things while sleeping that might get us hurt (or worse). When that part of the brain (the pons, located in the brainstem) is deactivated or removed, both dogs and cats have actually gotten up and acted out their dream activities. Cats will stalk, pounce and growl. Dogs will wag their tails and move about excitedly, as if greeting a friend. Although I’m not overly fond of the idea of doing brain surgery in order to learn things, what was learned is a valuable step toward understanding our animal friends.

Our dogs and cats dream, just like we do.

May all, or at least most, of their dreams be happy ones. When they aren’t, we’ll just have to do our best to hold them, comfort them, and reassure them that they are safe.

Further Reading:

Do Dogs Dream? From Psychology Today

Dogs Dream Of You While Cats Dream Of Death. From IFL Science