If you are a dog lover, you know how similar our dogs can be to us. And like us, our dogs have very active dream lives. Chasing bunnies or squirrels in their sleep is something dogs do that brings a smile to our faces. However, there are times when our dogs whine and cry in their sleep — prompting us to wonder why.
Is your dog in pain, or have the rabbits and squirrels mounted a rebellion? Should I risk a bite and wake my dog from this invisible nightmare(NO!)?
Before discussing the reasons for this behavior, you should know more about your dog’s sleep cycles.
Dog Sleep Cycles
Dogs need more sleep than we do. They can sleep from twelve to fourteen hours a day, so it’s not unusual to find your pet asleep most of the time.
Dog sleep cycles are similar to ours, and they must drift into REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep for dreams to occur. There are two sleep phases in a dog’s sleep cycle: the slow-wave phase and the REM phase. The slow-wave phase begins just as your dog falls asleep and lasts ten to twenty minutes. The REM phase, or deep sleep, follows the slow-wave phase. REM sleep is probably when your dog cries in his sleep.
The REM phase lasts thirty to forty-five minutes, depending on your dog’s size and age. Larger dogs dream less frequently but for longer, while smaller dogs dream more frequently, but their dreams are shorter. Peak brain activity occurs during dream cycles, when your dog may whine, whimper, or growl.
What Do Dogs Dream About?
We cannot be completely sure what dogs dream about since we can only study brainwaves with our current technology. While brainwaves give us a great picture of sleep cycles, and when dreaming starts, they cannot tell us the substance of a dream. And, of course, no matter how well you and your dog understand each other, they can’t tell you about their dreams.
If your dog is crying in its sleep, don’t assume it’s a nightmare. Dogs probably relive the events of the day in their dreams. For example, if your dog’s legs are moving or twitching while asleep, he is probably dreaming about running in the backyard or chasing a squirrel. Your dog has probably done something similar during the day as well.
Signs Your Dog is Dreaming
REM sleep is the phase when the body repairs itself and prepares for the next day. In this phase, the brain’s activity levels surge to signal all body parts. As a result, dreaming also occurs during this phase of sleep. The brain sends signals to different muscles in the body, and you’ll see these signs when your dog is dreaming:
- Twitching of muscles, such as the limbs
- Darting of the eyes
- Making faces
- Woofing, whining, whimpering, or growling
Reasons Your Dog Cries in Its Sleep
Before deciding that something is wrong with your dog, here is a list of reasons why your dog might cry in its sleep
The most common reason your dog cries in his sleep is dreaming. As we discussed above, various signs will indicate your pet is dreaming. Your dog is probably dreaming about the day’s events when it cries in its sleep. Did your dog chase something? Did it get its nails clipped? Your dog’s woofs, wines, and cries during sleep may be a replay of the day’s events.
If you have a puppy at home, whining or whimpering while asleep is expected behavior. Puppies newly separated from their mothers and littermates will whine and cry while sleeping and awake. In this situation, your puppy needs to be comforted in a way that does not encourage him to whine. Just like human children, dogs form secure attachments with their human parents. Make your puppy feel warm and safe and give it time to settle into its new home, and it will cry less in its sleep.
Traumatic Life Events
When you adopt a puppy from a shelter, inquire about any traumatic life events. The puppy could’ve lost his mother, separated from his littermates, suffered an injury, etc.
Just like humans, dogs can also develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Your puppy can relive these events in his dreams well into adulthood. To address this problem, you should consult your veterinarian about what steps you should take. Treatments for PTSD usually involve medication and behavioral treatments. Your veterinarian can guide you toward the best treatment plan for your pup.
Medical Issues or Discomfort
Painful medical conditions and discomfort can cause your dog to cry in his sleep. Senior dogs can have arthritis, making it very difficult to rest comfortably. Sleeping can put pressure on the affected joints causing pain and resulting in whines and cries during sleep.
Dogs attached to their owners may have trouble sleeping separately, causing whining and crying during sleep. If you have a puppy, separation anxiety could be the reason for crying in his sleep. If you don’t want your dog to sleep with you, you should begin crate training as soon as possible. If you pick up your pup every time it whines or cries, it is learning that whining and crying is a great way to get the attention it wants. Make your puppy’s crate a great place to be, where good things happen — and soon, your pup will be sleeping peacefully in its crate.
Dogs are generally active animals with a lot of energy. You need to provide them with mental and physical stimulation opportunities to ensure their overall health. If your dog does not get enough exercise, he can become bored or develop other behavioral issues. It is also important that you find new activities to do together every once in a while. If your dog always plays the same games or with the same toys, he will likely get bored. Provide your dog opportunities to utilize its mental and physical energy, and you will avoid the whining of a frustrated dog.
Twitching and crying during sleep can signify a seizure or other neurological disorders. While whimpering doesn’t help differentiate dreaming from seizures, the intensity of twitching does. Your pet also twitches while dreaming, but the twitching appears more uncontrolled during a seizure. There could be thrashing or tremors throughout your dog’s whole body or in a specific body part.
Most dogs experience seizure episodes while awake or slightly after waking up, but they can also occur during sleep. While dreaming, your dog might twitch, kick, or paddle its legs for thirty seconds or less. If these movements appear violent, last longer, and your dog wakes up seemingly disoriented, consult your veterinarian as soon as possible.
REM Behavior Disorder
Some dogs have a rare disorder called REM Behavior Disorder. Similar to sleepwalking, your dog will engage in physical activity while asleep. Since this disorder causes your pet to perceive his dreams as reality, it may run into walls, attack inanimate objects, and cry or growl while asleep. Dogs with REM Behavior Disorder awaken with no visible signs of confusion or disorientation. Consult your veterinarian if you notice your pet showing any of these symptoms. Your dog could hurt himself or you during these episodes unintentionally.
What You Can Do
If your dog is crying in his sleep, the best thing you can do is wait for him to wake up. Don’t try to shake your dog awake. You could startle your pet and become the object of an unintentional bite. If you feel your pet has a bad dream, you should try calling out their name to awaken them first. Soothe them with a few pets so they can go back to sleep calmly.
If you notice your dog showing symptoms of any of the conditions described above, consult your veterinarian immediately. Since dogs cannot accurately communicate their needs to us, it is your responsibility to rule out any medical conditions causing this behavior.