Why do cats twitch in their sleep?

You may have noticed your cat twitching while sleeping. Have you ever wondered why this happens? What is going on in their bodies? Are they dreaming? Read on to become an expert on the science behind why cats twitch in their sleep.

Twitches or seizures?

If your cat often twitches in their sleep, you may be concerned that the condition is something serious. However, many cats twitch in their sleep. They might move their ears, knead the air, or make vocal or sucking sounds. A number of theories exist as to why. Some people believe they are involuntary muscle spasms. But a majority of scientists agree that cats twitch while in the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep. In humans, the REM stage is when we remember our dreams. Cats sleep up to 16 hours each day, and a larger proportion of their sleep is REM sleep when compared to the human sleep cycle.

cat sleeping
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You may have noticed that younger cats tend to twitch more than older cats. A similarity between humans and cats — beyond that they both go into REM sleep — is that their young have immature nervous systems. Their nervous systems are hard at work making neuron connections and constantly firing, which is why babies move their limbs often and why kittens are so active. Twitching during sleep in kittens helps to properly develop their nervous system.

For most cats, twitching while asleep is a normal and common behavior. There is no reason to see a vet over your cat’s twitching unless they are also lethargic, have a decreased appetite, vomit, their body stiffens or they have jerky movements when they twitch, or they are hard to wake up. These symptoms might be symptoms of other serious illnesses. Whole body stiffness and jerky movements may be indicative that your cat is having a seizure and not just innocently twitching. Seizures do not only happen during sleep, though, so you will probably notice them while your cat is awake, too. If your cat has seizures, you will also likely see that they act oddly while awake; they may have wobbly feet or appear confused.

Stages of sleep

Essentially, cats experience three stages of sleep. The lightest type of sleep is the short “catnaps” they take. During this sleep, cats are very aware of their surroundings. You may notice that while taking a catnap, your cat’s ears still turn in response to sounds. Catnaps originated in wild cats as a natural defense mechanism, and the behavior was passed down to modern domestic cats.

cat sleeping
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Deep sleep is also known as the REM stage of sleep. This stage only lasts five to 10 minutes at a time and is when cats twitch and probably dream. When truly sleeping, cats cycle through deep sleep and another stage of sleep — light sleep. Light sleep is between catnap and deep sleep in length and level of awareness.
Kittens have a fourth sleep stage, known as activated sleep. During activated sleep, a cat’s nervous system is active (whereas it is usually at rest during sleep) and they may cry or squirm, or have more pronounced twitches than your average cat twitch. This, like other nerve firings that occur in young animals, is important for maturing the nervous system. Never rouse a sleeping kitten. They need lots of rest to make up for all the energy they exert while awake!

If they are uncomfortable or feel unsafe, cats may not go into deep sleep. To make a welcoming sleeping environment for your kitty, be sure to provide them with a bed or otherwise padded, raised sleeping area. Sleeping on a raised platform allows cats to escape other stimuli that are on the ground, such as children or other animals. This should be in a room that is relatively cool. If the temperature is cool enough, your cat might roll up into a ball to sleep. Cats will sleep in a more relaxed position in warmer temperatures.

Remember that usually a cat’s twitches are not harmful. It can even be entertaining to watch a cat twitch! So just sit back and relax, and enjoy the free show.

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