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Why Do Cats Twitch In Their Sleep

↯ Key takeaway points

  • Cats twitch in their sleep during REM sleep, which is when they can dream and act out parts of their day with physical activity.
  • Twitching during sleep is natural for all mammals, including cats, and is caused by the serotonin system slowing down.
  • Cats may also experience hypnic jerks when falling asleep, which are sudden spasms caused by misfiring in the brain.
  • Cats have two sleep stages, NREM and REM, and both are important for their overall health and well-being.
  • Kittens twitch more in their sleep compared to adult cats, and this behavior is normal and linked to their sensorimotor development.
Written by Jay
BsC (Hons) Animal Behaviour & Welfare graduate with a passion for advocating for misunderstood animals.
Taimoor is a well-traveled practicing veterinarian performing duties related to pet care, staff supervision, laboratory work, and diagnoses.
Published on
Sunday 10 December 2023
Last updated on
Monday 30 October 2023
Why Do Cats Twitch In Their Sleep?
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Your cat loves nothing more than to curl up in their cozy bed – and that’s for a whopping 12 to 18 hours per day. As such, you’ve probably noticed them do plenty of endearing things in their sleep, like twitching, purring, and kneading the air. But why do cats twitch in their sleep?

A cat twitching in their sleep is most often in something known as REM sleep. In this phase, your cat can dream, and may act out parts of their day with physical activity. However, there are some cases where cats twitching in their sleep may be struggling with an underlying problem. To find out more about cats twitching in their sleep, read on with us today!

Why Do Cats Twitch While Sleeping?

Much like us, cats twitch when they dream. During non-REM sleep, your cat’s brain takes pictures seen throughout the day and arranges them into dreams to understand what was seen. Later, during REM sleep, your cat “watches” the edited footage, and their serotonin system slows down. Because serotonin controls large muscle groups, fine motor movements, such as moving limbs and facial twitching, are common during this stage of sleep. This behavior is natural for all mammals, including our cats. Cats in particular are thought to dream about “being on the hunt”, according to some studies.

Dreaming is not the only cause for cats twitching during sleep! Everyone has experienced the “falling” feeling and suddenly jerking awake when falling asleep – unfortunately, our cats can experience this too. This phenomenon, called a hypnic jerk, is most commonly experienced during the transition from wakefulness to sleep. It’s thought that this occurs due to “misfiring” in the brain during the aforementioned transition – the brain may misinterpret stimulation of its motor areas during this time, causing a sudden spasm and “falling” sensation as your body both relaxes in preparation for sleep, yet wants to gear up to move quickly.

Cat Sleep Stages

Like humans, cats undergo two basic sleep stages: non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM) and rapid eye movement sleep (REM). There are four stages of sleep spanning these two types. Your cat needs plenty of both types of sleep to be happy and healthy. But what are the differences?

NREM sleep comprises sleep stages one to three. Stage one is sometimes known as “relaxed wakefulness”, where hypnic jerks are most common. By stage two, no eye movement occurs, no dreams occur, and cats can be woken up easily. This brings us to stage three, where deep sleep occurs. During deep sleep, your cat may dream, but dreams in this stage are less vivid and more disconnected. When it comes to deep sleep, senior cats need much more than younger cats. This is because NREM sleep aids with muscle repair and regeneration, and your senior cat is likely to have stiff and tired joints that need some TLC.

REM sleep, also known as stage four, is most commonly associated with dreaming, and although it occurs differently in different animals, all land mammals experience some form of it. The amount of REM sleep varies among animals as well, with predators experiencing longer bouts of it. In cats, a full REM and NREM cycle lasts for 22 minutes, compared to 90 minutes in humans. While NREM sleep is best for muscle repair and regeneration, REM sleep is essential for learning and memory. This is why kittens spend more time in REM sleep than senior cats.

Do Cats Have Nightmares?

Because cats can experience dreams, they have the potential to experience bad dreams as well. In 1960, Michel Jouvet conducted sleep studies on cats and found that cats would hiss and arch their backs during sleep, theorizing that they were dreaming about hunting for prey – however, it’s also likely that cats reimagine negative experiences they’ve had through the day, which may cause them to hiss, twitch, or move their limbs in response.

Often, nightmares are linked to unmet psychological needs and frustration with life experiences. So, if your cat struggles with anxiety and stress, you may find that they experience bad dreams more often than others. Your cat’s mind may play out their fears in a safe narrative, which serves the purpose of making them better prepared for that stressor when they awaken.

If you believe that your cat is having a bad dream, you should not wake them up. Your cat could wake up feeling startled and confused, which puts you at risk of being bitten or scratched before they’re fully aware of their surroundings. As well as this, your cat needs REM sleep to process and maintain their memory. If you interrupt this process frequently, your cat will quickly become overwhelmed and stressed. Allow your cat to wake up on their own, offering reassurance when they awaken.

Should You Be Concerned If Your Cat Is Twitching?

If your cat twitches when awake, it’s important to monitor them closely. There are several causes for twitching and muscle contractions, so being able to pinpoint areas of concern can help you and your local vet to understand the underlying reason. Does the behavior occur with specific triggers, like being touched, or does it happen for seemingly no reason? Are there any signs of pain and discomfort? Be sure to keep a record of your cat’s symptoms to bring to your vet.

For example, your cat’s back may twitch after touch or for no apparent reason. If your cat also shows other signs such as excessive meowing, tail-chasing, biting the lower back, and discomfort when being touched, a condition known as feline hyperesthesia syndrome may be the culprit. Similarly, a slipped disc or pinched nerves can lead to twitching and discomfort. Your cat might itch, lick, or bite the painful area repeatedly. Even something like a flea allergy can cause your cat to twitch, especially in response to touch. You might notice similar behavior when your cat is asleep as well. Overall, you know your furry friend best, so be sure to get them to your vet right away if you think something is amiss.

Why Do Kittens Twitch More Than Older Cats?

If you have a kitten, you may notice that they twitch more in their sleep compared to your adult cat. This behavior is normal for many other young animals. It is thought that twitching during REM sleep is linked to sensorimotor development. When a kitten’s body twitches, it activates circuits through the developing nervous system and teaches them about their limbs and what they can do with them. By doing this, your kitten’s body is better able to transform rudimentary movements into coordinated movements.

All healthy kittens will twitch in their sleep, and it’s normal for them to do so. You may notice your kitten chatter, flick their ears, or even knead the air with their paws when fast asleep. As your kitten processes the events of the day, their activities may reflect what they have done throughout it. This, coupled with their nervous system’s development, causes them to twitch much more than adult cats.

How to Distinguish Twitching From Seizure

Because cat seizures take many forms, some pet parents may mistake them for normal sleep activity. Generalized seizures involve convulsions, loss of consciousnesses, vocalization, and loss of bladder control. This is different from normal dream activity, where your cat may intermittently twitch. If this type of seizure lasts for longer than five to ten minutes, it is a medical emergency and your cat must see an emergency vet as soon as possible.

During a seizure, your cat’s brain experiences a sudden surge of electrical activity. This causes the most noticeable signs of shaking, tremors, convulsions, and spasms. If your cat has epilepsy, it means that they have repeated episodes of seizures. With epilepsy, a cat may have one or several seizures, which can be unpredictable. Unfortunately, seizures most often occur when cats are resting or falling asleep, often early in the morning or at night. This is because they happen most often during times of changing brain activity. But what causes epileptic seizures in cats?

There are two main types of epileptic fits in cats. Firstly, intracranial epilepsy occurs due to structural problems in your cat’s brain, such as head trauma, inflammation, tumors, or infections. This can cause circling, lethargy, or restlessness in cats. On the other hand, extracranial epilepsy occurs due to problems outside of the brain, such as toxins, poisons, or metabolic diseases. Infectious diseases like toxoplasmosis and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) can also cause this type of seizure in cats.

SymptomREM sleep activitySeizure activity
Facial twitchingYesYes
VocalizationYesYes
Leg paddlingYesYes – tense and rhythmic
Muscle twitchingYesYes
Widespread rigidityNoYes
Sudden wakingYesYes
Difficulty wakingNoYes
Loss of bladder controlNoYes
DroolingNoYes
How to Distinguish Twitching From Seizure

Cats and kittens twitch in their sleep to process memories, to retain information, and as part of their nervous system’s development. This differs from seizure activity, where your cat will exhibit tense, rigid, and rhythmic movements.

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