Cats sleep an average of 12 to 18 hours a day . So, it only makes sense that part of your day includes watching your cat sleep.
We might not fully understand what is going on in their furry noggins as they nap, but cat-loving experts agree—the feline sleep cycle is like mine and yours. You might even catch your furry BFF’s paws haphazardly swatting like there’s an invisible mouse.
So, what does it mean if you see your cat twitching in their sleep? A team of veterinarians get to the bottom of these questions. Plus, they’ve outlined the tell-tale signs that indicate when twitching in cats could be a cause for concern.
What Does Cat Twitching Look Like?
Sleep twitching in cats, like movements in humans when sleeping, can vary. But Dr. Jo Myers, a veterinarian at Vetster, says there are a few hallmark signs that indicate a cat twitching while sleeping isn’t out of the ordinary:
- The twitching stops if you wake your cat up
- It only happens occasionally and only happens when sleeping
- Your cat is acting completely healthy otherwise
A cat’s rapid eye movement (REM) cycle lasts about six minutes, “so harmless twitching could be expected to last this length of time,” says Dr. Alex Avery, a New Zealand-based small animal veterinarian. During this time, you might hear your cat making sleep noises, see a cat tail twitching, or notice that your kitten is trying to suckle.
“Because each cat’s sleep movements vary so much, the best indication something else could be at play is knowing your cat’s normal sleep characteristics and therefore be able to recognize when something out of the ordinary happens,” Dr. Avery says.
Why Do Cats Twitch in Their Sleep?
Humans can experience a range of movements during sleep. When we first fall asleep, we might experience hypnic jerks, or what some call a sleep start. At the end of each 70 to 100-minute sleep cycle, we enter REM sleep—a sleep defined by increased brain activity (aka dreams) that might be accompanied by sleep talking and/or sleep twitching. Some people even experience a sleep disorder that occurs somewhere between wakefulness and sleep, known as sleepwalking.
According to Dr. Cathy Barnette, the notable difference between a cat’s REM stage and a human’s REM stage is timing. While humans have longer periods of REM sleep spaced relatively far apart, cats cycle in and out of REM sleep more quickly.
“During REM sleep, a cat’s body normally goes into a state of complete muscular relaxation, the extent of which varies by individual,” Dr. Avery explains. Some nerve signals might make their way through the sleep paralysis and that’s when you’ll see the twitch of a paw or whisker.
Do Cats Dream?
Cats and humans alike have a specific part of the brain to thank for sleep muscle relaxation. In the 1950s, sleep research pioneer Michel Jouvet took a hands-on approach to manipulate this area of the brain to answer the question, “do cats dream?”
Jouvet’s findings were this: without paradoxical sleep (complete muscular relaxation), cats acted out movements that appeared to mimic waking life activities like walking, stalking prey, and grooming. He called these sleep movements oneiric behavior . Jouvet couldn’t be sure, but because there weren’t outside stimuli causing the movements, he theorized that a cat’s oneiric behavior is a reaction to a dream-like state.
“Because we can’t yet talk to our cats, we can’t be sure that what they are experiencing during their REM sleep is the same as us,” Avery says. “They may dream in a different way or may be experiencing a similar physiological state in the absence of dreaming.”
In his book “The Paradox of Sleep: The Story of Dreaming” Jouvet concluded, “How can we wake a cat during paradoxical sleep and ask it questions? We cannot, but the discovery and analysis of oneiric behavior would lead us to believe that cats do dream.”
Cat Twitching: When to Contact Your Veterinarian
Dr. Myers and Dr. Avery agree: most sleep twitching is completely harmless. Signs of something more are “generally too profound to be confused with regular sleep twitching.” If your cat is showing any of the following signs, it’s best to schedule a visit to the veterinarian:
- The twitching is involuntary and doesn’t stop when your cat wakes
- The twitching occurs when your cat is asleep and awake
- The twitching is accompanied by other symptoms like difficulty walking, excess drooling, collapse, seizures, or sensitivity when touched near the tail
Dr. Avery adds that cat twitches in sleep could be a sign of feline allergies, like itching from a flea bite. “While your cat may appear completely oblivious to the outside world while they are sleeping, the body is still able to receive messages of what is going on in their surroundings,” he says. “A cat who is itchy while they are sleeping is one who will certainly be itchy when they are awake.”
Cats can also twitch when they’re awake Dr. Myers says. This could happen when they’re excited or stalking their favorite toy mouse. “These types of twitching are all voluntary and can be interrupted,” she says. If your cat is twitching while awake and the twitch can’t be interrupted, your cat could be suffering from toxicity poisoning, a calcium imbalance, epilepsy, or feline hyperesthesia syndrome.
Wondering if your cat twitching in their sleep could be a seizure? “While it’s possible for a seizure to occur when a cat is sleeping, most seizures in cats occur during periods of excitement, such as while eating, during play, or while falling asleep or waking up,” Dr. Myers explains.
Signs that your cat could be experiencing a seizure include:
- Staring into space
- Loss of consciousness
- Collapse onto one side
- Violent spasms of the entire body
- Paddling of the legs and chomping of the mouth
- Excessive salivation
- Uncontrollable urination and/or defecation
“The length of time a seizure lasts depends on what’s causing it,” Dr. Myers explains. “If you think your cat is having a seizure, try waking them up. If it’s sleep twitching, the cat will wake up and act normal.”
If you think your cat is having a seizure, or you’re unsure if your cat’s twitching could be more serious, Dr. Myers suggests writing down observations and recording a video when possible. “The veterinarian will also want to know how often it happens and if your cat is showing any other symptoms. Also tell the veterinarian about any medications, supplements, pesticides, or natural products you use on or around your cat,” she says.
Otherwise, enjoy curling up with your favorite napping feline. If she’s twitching, she’s likely just dreaming of catching mice, eating her favorite meal, or cuddling with you.