The reason why dogs experience these slight movements in their sleep is nearly always benign and harmless. It is primarily an indication that your dog is dreaming. Maybe he is chasing a rabbit in his sleep or going on a nice long hike. Twitching usually indicates that your dog is getting the quality sleep he needs to be healthy. However, are there times when twitching is something to be concerned about? Are there times when you should wake your dog from sleep to make the twitching stop?
What Does Normal Dog Twitching Look Like?
Dog twitching refers to the small movements a dog makes in his sleep. Twitching can happen anywhere on the body but is most commonly seen in the legs, tail, and face. In addition to twitching, your dog may also make small vocalizations and movements, and their eyes may seem to dart behind their eyelids. If a dog is lying in a curled-up position, these reactions may be even more pronounced since a dog’s body is tenser in a sleeping position.
Do All Dogs Twitch in Their Sleep?
When a dog falls asleep, a part of their brain that gets activated. This area of the brain is called the pons, an area in the brain stem that regulates automatic body functions like breathing and the sleep/wake cycle. The pons is responsible for controlling how the muscles react during sleep. This is so that dogs (and humans too) are not able to physically act out dreams.
Twitching results from a few of those signals making it through and causing muscles to react to whatever your dog is dreaming. Twitching is more common in younger and older dogs. In younger dogs, the brain stem is still in development, and so more twitches “make it through”. In older dogs, these functions are weakening, so twitching is not as well controlled.
Stages of Dog Sleep
Twitching only happens in dream states. There are three sleep stages, non-rapid eye movement sleep, short-wave sleep, and rapid eye movement (REM). Dreams occur in REM sleep. In dogs, REM occurs about 20 minutes after falling asleep and lasts only about five minutes. This means that when your dog twitches in his sleep, it will not last long as he transitions into a different sleep stage.
Do Dogs Dream?
Given that twitching is a sign of repressed muscle movements activated by a dream, it is pretty safe to say that dogs do indeed dream. Dogs sleep for 12-14 hours every day, and while sleeping, process information from their day. Dreaming occurs in REM sleep which occurs every 20 minutes or so and lasts only for a few minutes. Dogs probably dream about things that happen in their day. Maybe it is chasing an animal, spending time with you, or even reliving something frightening.
Dogs not only dream but can experience nightmares and night terrors too. Your dog may display more agitated twitching and may make small, distressed whimpers. Their breathing may become irregular, and their eyes may flicker rapidly. Even if you suspect your dog is experiencing a troubling dream or nightmare, it is best not to wake them unless they are in apparent distress. When you do wake a dog, do not shake it, as this could cause your dog to wake suddenly and bite or scratch you. Instead, gently, and calmly call your dog’s name until he awakens.
When to Be Concerned
A dog twitching in its sleep is not usually anything to be concerned about. It is normal and usually a sign of good, restorative sleep. So, what are the signs that twitching is not just because of the dream state?
Twitching in sleep becomes an issue if it interferes with your dog’s sleep quality. If the twitching is constantly waking your dog or making it hard for it to fall asleep, you may want to have a vet check for underlying issues.
Some twitching can be a tremor or a spasm. Several possible causes include malnutrition, infection, diabetes, low blood sugar, low body temperatures, anxiety, arthritis, some heart conditions, seizures, kidney or live issues, and possible poisoning. The main difference in identifying whether your dog is experiencing a normal twitching, or is experiencing a seizure, is the position of the body. A normal twitch occurs in a relaxed sleeping dog. Seizures cause a dog’s body to be stiff and tense.
There are other indications that your dog is experiencing something more serious. Your dog may be difficult to rouse, and even when wakened, may be unresponsive. Dogs may lose control of their urine and bowel movements. There may be vomiting, drooling, or foaming at the mouth. The eyes will look wide but glassy. Dogs may begin excessively panting and will seem disorientated. Seizures also primarily occur while a dog is awake, whereas normal twitching will only happen while your dog sleeps.
If you suspect your dog is suffering from something more serious, get to a vet immediately. These kinds of tremors or seizures can indicate a life-threatening issue.
It is normal to see a dog twitch, paw, or even whine in its sleep. Your dog will transition out of that sleep stage shortly, and it is not usually anything to be concerned about. Twitching just indicates that your dog is getting necessary sleep, working out his day, improving memory, and maybe even having fun chasing an imaginary squirrel.