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Q&A: Doggy Nightmares

| Filed under: Q&ADogDr. Patrick Mahaney

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Many of us have dogs that are funny sleepers. You can see them running in bed and wonder what they're dreaming.

But sometimes they whimper and whine and we wonder… can dogs have nightmares?

A TeddyHilton.com reader wrote in to Dr. Patrick Mahaney:

Is it possible that dogs can have nightmares? My 11 year old Pomeranian will frequently jump up in the middle of the night looking frantic and walking around in circles. She then looks at me, I comfort her, and she goes right back to sleep.

I adopted her a year ago, but have no idea what her life was like before me. Is t possible she's having scary dreams?

Dr. Patrick responded:

Thank you for your question about dog dreams. Although science does not currently permit humans to determine if dogs actually dream, perhaps we will be able to do so in the future.

Based on the behavior I have seen my own dog exhibit and that which you describe, I speculate that dogs do dream. After all, the behavior dogs show appears strikingly similar to that which we humans display when we sleep. Our brains are at rest, but mental stimulation causes a variable and visible physical response.

For humans, dreams elicit a involuntary muscle twitching, vocalizing, and other behaviors (all of which may be seen in your pet). At some point, the stimulation crosses a threshold and we awaken, only to realize that we were just having a dream. I certainly have woken up in a panic innumerable times after dreaming that I could not find my classroom to get to a test on time.

If brain activity becomes excessive, the possibility exists that a pet could have a seizure during a sleeping state. An underlying disease process is the cause, which may or may not be life threatening. In an older dog, brain tumors are highly suspect as the cause of a seizure. In younger dogs, the most likely reason is idiopathic epilepsy (when no other cause for a seizure can be determined). There are many disease conditions capable of causing seizures, all of which require medical workup (blood and urine testing, X-rays, MRI, etc). Many times in my clinical practice, I have treated many dogs having seizures that started while they were in a sleeping state.

Now, not every dog showing behavior like you describe in your super cute pooch is going to have a seizure. In her case, the fact that she goes right back to sleep tells me that (yes) she may have just been dreaming. Perhaps her life before coming under your care was less than ideal and it comes back to her during a dream state. Fortunately, you are there to reassure her and provide her the best quality of life possible during times she is awake.

Dr PM

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