Do dogs dream? The secrets of their sleep

Do dogs dream just like cats? Where do they like to sleep and how much sleep does our four-legged friend really need? Before answering these and other questions with the help of Dr Maria Grazia Calore, veterinary doctor expert in pet behaviour, let’s start by underlining the key role of sleep – for the wellness of the dog.


A dog’s sleep: how, how much and where?

A dog’s sleep, just like a human’s one, is divided into a deep phase and a deep REM phase in which it dreams. This moment can be recognised by the following signs: softly barking, growling, whining, a wagging tail and paw movements that mimic running. In fact, during the REM phase, a dog ‘processes’ information gleaned during the day retracing its experiences and steps.

The duration of sleep varies depending on the age of the dog: a puppy up to the age of three weeks old sleeps from 15 to 18 hours a day and from eight weeks of age, 10-12 hours total. This prolonged sleep has an ethological explanation: a predator, just as we could consider a dog, can have long periods of rest because it does not always need to be alert to survive.

To avoid problems of coexistence at home we should not place a dog’s bed in a passageway: in this way he will not assume the ‘responsibility’ of controlling access around the house. Rather, we should put their bed in our room, if we want to sleep with them, or in another room. Moreover, the choice of the bed must be proportionate to our friend: it does not need to be too large because most dogs sleep curled up in a ball to maintain heat.


A dog’s sleep: a clue about their health

Even a dog’s sleep can provide information on its state of health or mind. For example, if it sleeps very little, wakes up at night and complains or is agitated at the time of going to sleep, it is probably going through a stressful or anxious period. If, instead, the dog sleeps more hours than the expected physiological duration, it may be suffering from depression.

In these cases, it is advisable to consult your veterinarian to rule out any physical disorders or metabolic diseases and deal with any behavioural problems with the help of an expert in pet behaviour.

Pet and owner: 5 key elements of their relationship

Relationships between pets and their owners are quite different from those established between humans. Dr Maria Grazia Calore, veterinary doctor and expert in pet behaviour, has identified five key elements of this bond for us, useful not only to understand the nature of dogs and cats but also to interact with them in the most advantageous manner possible.

1. Elective Affinities

Pets ‘perceive’ us in a different way, picking up our ‘secret’ information from pheromones emitted by the skin. Thanks to these chemical messages our four-legged friends will understand if they can get close to us or if it is better to stay away.

2. Social reference or equal?

After their arrival in the family home, a dog will automatically try to form social relationships with all the members of the ‘family-pack’ by creating different ‘roles’ for each family member according to how it views them.

For a cat however, the bond with its new, human owner will develop into a relationship similar to friendship: it will consider us its equal in every way.

3. Not only food 

It’s wrong to believe that cats and dogs create closer relations with those who prepare their food.

In fact, equally important in a dog’s social reinforcement is the satisfaction of doing something with the owner, working towards a common goal or receiving a ‘well done’ cuddle; sometimes these experiences are worth more than a thousand tidbits!

Even in the eyes of our cat, we don’t just represent a vending machine of kibbles. Indeed, our feline often judges us so inept in the art of hunting that it presents us with prey to teach us how to do it!

4. The importance of being Ernest

We must be careful, just as in the novel quoted above, to avoid misunderstandings with our pets. For example, when we ask a dog to approach we shouldn’t adopt a position that might frighten it – but use a bent forward posture – we should also avoid talking using an angry or an excessively high tone of voice. Both an incorrect posture and the wrong tone of voice are communicating that there is a danger while the words are asking him to approach the threat – these conflicting messages will be confusing for your pet!

In the presence of a cat however, if we move too quickly or if we hide our hands or feet under a blanket, they could associate us with prey and attack. So reacting with a rebuke to a normal behaviour of predation can risk undermining our friendship.

It’s matter of…

Respect, understanding and desire to communicate: three elements that, together with affection, will ensure that the relationship with our four-legged friend works.

– Respect means satisfying the behavioural needs of their species: we should ensure our dogs socialise, let them explore the environment, sniff and mark the ground. Don’t impose any ‘forced’ cohabitation with other animals on our cat, and provide areas for games and relaxation.

– Understanding is to try to understand that animals have emotions, moods that, at times, are like ours or sometimes typical of their species.

– Desire to communicate means to make an effort to understand their language, being informed, reading books about them, stopping to observe their behaviours without prejudice. And we should adapt our language to our animal, not limiting our communication efforts to words, but accompanying them with gestures and coherent and clear body language.

The wild nature of cats: the truth is in their DNA

Often in the mood for pampering, always there to remind you when it’s time for food, and occasionally on guard duty to defend your home from ‘alien invaders’, the common, household cat is considered a perfect pet companion. However, the most innocuous of felines, which has lived among men for thousands of years, still continues to hold on to a characteristic from its untamed past: its wild nature.

A key aspect of a cat’s evolution, from savagery through to domestication, has been highlighted by recent research into a cat’s DNA by researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.


The influence of man on the evolution of the cat

To understand how, and to what extent, its proximity to man has affected the nature of the cat; researchers conducting the study compared the genomes of seven breeds of domestic cat and two breeds of wildcat. The specific parts of the genome sequenced and analysed in this comparison were the ones responsible for behavioural characteristics that have been linked to the evolution of tameness, such as memory, reward seeking, and fear conditioning (i.e. curbing a cat’s natural ‘fight or flight’ response when faced with unfamiliar people or situations, thereby taming the cat’s wild nature).

According to geneticist Wes Warren, co-author of the study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, the characteristics of the Felis silvestris catus (the domestic cat) have changed over the course of the 9,000 years that it has lived with man. Professor Warren, explained: “Humans most likely welcomed cats because they controlled rodents that consumed their grain harvests. We hypothesised that humans would offer cats food as a reward to stick around.”

This compromise between man and cat appears to have marked the beginning of real evolutionary change for these fascinating creatures, resulting in a noticeable change in their DNA.


The tenacity of a cat’s wild nature

Yet, despite this genetic modification derived from human domestication, the domestic cat still remains wild enough at heart to be considered semi-domesticated at best, the researchers surmised: “We believe we have created the first preliminary evidence that depicts domestic cats as not that far removed from wildcat populations,” Professor Warren added. Because of the researchers’ conclusions, we must be mindful to the nature of our cats: because in them, lying dormant remains part of nature as mysterious as it is wild.