Everyone with a canine companion has probably seen their dog’s twitching during sleep at least once. The eyes, lips, and nose can be moving, your dog might paddle or kick with his feet or even start running.
This twitching can be accompanied by yelps, whining, barking, or growling. You might have wondered about the exciting dream he is having or even the nightmare that you wanted to wake him up from.
Sometimes these limb jerks and facial twitches can look rather violent and you might ask yourself if your dog is simply dreaming or experiencing something more serious like a seizure.
Find out why your dog is twitching in his sleep, how to distinguish twitches from seizures, and what to do to help your dog snooze better.
Why Do Dogs Twitch In Their Sleep?
To understand the twitching better, let’s have a look at a dog’s sleep cycle and sleeping habits which are quite similar to ours.
How dogs spend their day in relation to sleep:
- 50% Sleeping (12-14 hours for adult dogs)
- 30% Resting (large breeds rest more than smaller breeds)
- 20% Awake
That being said, the amount of sleep a dog requires changes with breed and age.
Working dogs don’t doze as often as non-working lines that weren’t bred for a specific purpose.
Contrary to healthy adult dogs, puppies and older dogs require about 18-20 hours of sleep a day.
Sleep can be generally categorized into three categories: Light sleep, deep sleep, and REM sleep.
When your dog curls up in his bed and starts to drift into light sleep, a few things happen:
- His breathing becomes heavy and slow
- His heart rate slows down
- His blood pressure and body temperature drop
- His muscles relax and may jerk
After your dog has fallen asleep, he enters the first deep sleep stage within 10 minutes. His heart rate goes up and bodily movements might occur.
REM (rapid eye movement) is the stage where active dreaming occurs and it comes after the “deep sleep” which is the most restorative and rejuvenating sleep stage.
But why do dogs twitch in their sleep?
Dogs dream during the REM stage just like we do and respond to those dreams with twitching, barking, or whining which mostly affects puppies and senior dogs and lasts for about 30 seconds. Those muscle movements can include subtle face twitches, paddling, or can look like a full-on marathon on the floor.
The purpose of REM is to re-energize your mind and the time spent in this stage decreases with age.
Humans spend 25% of their sleep in REM while dogs only stay in this stage for about 10% of their cycle.
Because dogs don’t reach REM sleep as often as we do, they require a lot more of it to feel well-rested.
To get back to the initial question of why dogs twitch while they sleep, it’s just a way for the body to act out dreams. Unfortunately, there is little concrete evidence on why this twitching even occurs in the first place.
Luckily, you don’t have to worry about the twitching because it’s completely normal and can occur from time to time. But where does healthy movement end and medical-related twitching start?
Recommended Reading: Why do dogs sleep on our pillows?
Do Dogs Have Seizures In Their Sleep?
Seizures are characterized by abrupt and uncontrollable movements that stem from abnormal brain activity. The most recognizable types of seizures are generalized or mal seizures and focal seizures.
Dogs can experience seizures during their sleep but they look quite different from a normal sleep cycle. Although seizures commonly happen while the animal is awake, in some cases they can manifest during sleep.
A change in brain activity when your dog is falling asleep or waking up can trigger this reaction.
Visible symptoms of seizures include:
- (Violent) muscle spasms, twitches
- Chomping jaws
- Excessive salivation, panting
- Foaming around the mouth
- Loss of bowel and bladder control
- Stiffening, shaking
- Loss of consciousness
Before any of these symptoms or the actual twitching even become visible, the prodrome phase occurs. You may notice initial changes in your dog’s behavior but it can be difficult to connect these two occurrences as the prodrome can take place hours or days before the seizure.
Your dog may feel anxious or lightheaded which can be accompanied by sudden mood changes and neediness. After the seizure, your dog might be completely unresponsive or disoriented.
A dog that is experiencing a seizure in his sleep cannot be easily woken up.
Compared to normal twitching, his limbs will become stiff and rigid, followed by (violent) spasms and urinating.
Healthy sleeping dogs won’t experience any of these symptoms. Their paddling and kicking will maybe last 30 seconds at a time and they will wake up well-rested and oriented.
Seizures are always a reason for a vet visit. Serious diseases like brain cancer, anemia, epilepsy, or liver disease can cause such a shift in brain activity.
What to Do When Your Dog Has a Seizure
Having to witness your loved companion being shaken by a seizure is definitely disturbing and terrifying.
Nonetheless, you will want to stay as calm as possible during your dog’s seizure.
Your dog doesn’t know what is happening with his body and is in shock, adding a crying and pacing owner to the mix will make it worse.
In case your dog has a seizure, make sure that your dog is safe and remove any items out of the way that could potentially harm your dog. If you can, look at the time and write down how long the seizure lasts as this will be valuable information for your vet.
Do not restrain your dog or interfere in any way. Stay away from his mouth, he won’t be in danger of swallowing his tongue.
If the seizure lasts more than a few seconds or happens outside on a sunny day, wet his paws with cool water and turn a fan on to keep him from overheating.
Once the seizure is over, call your vet.
Seizures that last more than five minutes or happen more than three times over the course of 24 hours are emergencies and require immediate medical attention.
Is My Dog Having a Nightmare?
A dog that is twitching, paddling or making quiet noises is porbably having a good dream about food or chasing after his favourite toy.
Whining, growling or even screaming can indicate that your dog is trapped in a nightmare and feels anxious or threatened.
Researches have found that dogs most likely dream about past situations and memories which can be of positive or negative nature. If you have rescued a dog that has lived on the streets or has an abusive past, these traumas will haunt him in his dreams.
Dogs don’t have an imagination as we do and won’t dream about being able to fly or finally going on a date with that handsome Doberman from next door.
Their dreams consist of reliving those past experiences with all the anger, happiness, or fear that they have felt.
Fortunately, there are a few things that you can do to help your dog sleep better which you can read more about at the end of this post.
Should I Wake My Dog Up?
There is really no reason to wake up your dog in the middle of a dream. Even the most heartbreaking whimpers don’t need to be disrupted, your dog won’t have a trauma after a nightmare.
It can actually be harmful to wake up your dog especially from REM sleep. You probably know this feeling yourself. Completely waking up from an interrupted deep sleep takes a few seconds for your brain to adjust to reality.
Abruptly touching your dog in his sleep can startle him and he won’t realize that he isn’t in his dreamy environment anymore. This can lead to an accidental snap which is especially dangerous for children.
If you really have to wake up your dog then call his name. You can also tap on the floor beside him or softly blow at him.
Overall, it’s best not to disturb your dog even if he is having a bad dream. Interrupted sleep cycles will leave your dog more sleepy than rested. You can be there to comfort him when he wakes up.
If your dog is not waking up even when you let an object fall to the ground then he might experience a seizure and needs medical attention.
My Dog Is Barking In His Sleep
Vocalization is an important communication tool that dogs don’t loose when they sleep.
Whining, crying, growling, or barking in their sleep is quite normal and just a reaction to what they are dreaming about.
Similar to the twitching, these sounds should only last a few seconds at a time and your dog shouldn’t feel disoriented or anxious afterward.
Try playing your dog some classic music. The study “Behavioral effects of auditory stimulation on kenneled dogs” by Lori Kogan suggests that classic music has a soothing effect, reducing stress and vocalization.
Dogs exposed to Beethoven and co. also spend more time sleeping. Heavy metal, on the other hand, increases their stress response.
My Dog Is Screaming In His Sleep
From all the different noises and sounds your dog could be making in his sleep, screaming is probably the most terrifying. Dogs can scream in their sleep due to a horrifying nightmare, seizure, or pain.
If your dog hurts himself in his sleep, you could follow the seizure instructions above and make sure your dog can’t hurt himself. Violent jerking against objects during a seizure can cause serious injuries.
For nightmares, you can also follow the tips from above to wake up your dog and comfort him afterward. Sometimes your dog can let out a series of loud yipes that can sound like screams.
Keep track of your dog’s sleeping habits if you feel concerned. Some dogs are just more active sleepers than others.
However, if your dog is twitching excessively and interrupts his own sleep, you should talk to your vet about possible medical reasons. Dogs can suffer from narcolepsy and other sleeping disorders.
How Can You Help Your Dog Sleep Better?
High quality sleep is one of the best things that can happen to your body. Too much stress, illnesses, trauma, or certain drugs can deprive your dog of his well-deserved rest.
Here are 8 tips that will help your dog sleep better to keep him healthy and happy during the day and night:
- Daily routine: Dogs thrive on daily routines and schedules so their body is able to get adjusted to a consistent sleep cycle. Try going to bed and waking up around the same time and don’t disrupt your dog’s overall daily life.
Consistency is one of the most important things for animals as it keeps stress and undesired behavior at bay.
- Orthopedic bed: Providing your dog with a cozy dog bed will definitely increase the time he spends in it. An orthopedic bed like the Furhaven Ergonomic Dog Bed will make your dog fall in love with his bed.
If your dog is a notorious bed eater, check out my chew-proof dog bed guide.
- Sufficient exercise: If your dog is not properly exercised, physically as well as mentally, he won’t be tired by bedtime.
- Activity right before bedtime: Playing a rough game tug of war right before bedtime will get most dogs too excited. When a dog gets excited, his nervous system releases adrenaline and it’s rather difficult to sleep with adrenaline in your bloodstream.
- Last potty trip: Your dog should be able to relieve himself right before bedtime. Otherwise, a full bladder will wake him up in the middle of the night.
- Water intake: Similiar to the last potty trip, your dog will have a disrupted sleep if he was able to drink at night. Remove any water sources two hours before bedtime.
- Diet: A balanced diet is the foundation of good health. Nutrient deficiency or heavy evening meals can cause difficulty to sleep.
- Crate training: Dogs are designed by nature to be den animals which is reflected in their sleeping preferences. Some canines just prefer resting in a confined space that provides them with safety. Crate training your dog isn’t hard, just follow these 4 easy steps and you will be set and ready in no time.
Have you ever seen your dog twitch kinda funny or even so weird that it was concerning for you? Let me know in the comments!
Disclaimer: This blog post doesn’t substitute veterinary attention and does not intend to do so. If your dog shows any signs of illness, call your vet immediately.