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Why is my cat twitching in their sleep? Vet's guide to dreaming vs. seizures

cat twitching in their sleep
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The first time you notice your cat twitching in their sleep, it may seem cute. It’s adorable to think of your cat running through fields and chasing mice in their dreams. If the twitching persists, however, you may begin to feel a bit of anxiety rising up in your throat.

Could those adorable twitches indicate a serious underlying problem? Is your cat dreaming or are they potentially having a seizure or other neurologic episode?Assessing the significance of your cat’s twitches requires careful observation. In most cases, subtle twitches during sleep are nothing to worry about. 

However, in rare cases, twitching can indicate muscle spasms or even seizures. Observing your cat closely can help you determine whether your cat is showing signs of a more serious concern. 

Why do cats twitch in their sleep? 

Many cat owners notice their cats twitching in their sleep on occasion. Even if your feline appears to be snoozing in a comfortable cat bed, some cats and kittens may twitch almost every time they nap, while others may do it on a more rare basis.  

Possible causes of twitching during sleep include: 

  • Acting out a dream  
  • Nervous system development (kittens tend to twitch more than adults, and this may be related to the development of new connections in their nervous system) 
  • Uncontrollable muscle spasms (which tend to affect a single part of the body) 
  • Seizures (involving the entire body) 

While most causes of sleep twitching are nothing to worry about, you don’t want to neglect seizures if they are causing your cat’s twitching. 

Is it normal for cats to twitch in their sleep? 

Occasional twitching during sleep is normal, and not necessarily something to be concerned about. Normal twitches are often very subtle, but your cat may occasionally make broad movements that look like running or acting out other aspects of a dream. In some cases, your cat may move so actively that they look like they may fall out of their cat bed!

In order to determine whether your cat’s twitching is normal, you will need to pay close attention. Monitor your cat’s twitching as a detached observer, in order to gather more information about exactly what is happening during your cat’s sleep.

Cat sleeping on top of couch

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Is my cat dreaming or having a seizure? 

If your cat moves dramatically during sleep, it’s natural to wonder whether your cat is dreaming or having a seizure. Fortunately, dreaming is probably the more likely explanation for your cat’s behavior. It’s normal for cats to move while dreaming and this movement can, at times, be pronounced.

Although seizures are rare in cats, they can occur. And, in some cases, they can occur during sleep. A cat that is having a seizure will typically experience widespread muscle rigidity, accompanied by rhythmic movement. 

While a dreaming cat may subtly paddle their legs as if walking or running (in a way that mimics normal movements), a cat that is having a seizure will be tense across their entire body with exaggerated movements of the limbs.

 A cat that is having a seizure might “paddle” their legs, but this rhythmic, exaggerated paddling will not look like the relaxed dream movements that most cats exhibit. Most cats experiencing seizures will also show signs of neurologic changes during their waking hours. If your cat is otherwise acting completely normal, sleep-related movements are relatively unlikely to be seizures. 

On the other hand, if your cat has experienced recent changes in appetite, energy level, or behavior during other times of the day, seizures may be more of a possibility.

A black and white cat, curled up an sleeping

(Image credit: Future)

Should I wake my cat up if he's twitching? 

In general, it’s not a good idea to try to wake your cat up from sleep. 

If your cat is twitching due to a dream, he is likely in the REM (rapid eye movement) phase of sleep. This is the deepest phase of sleep, and the sleep phase during which dreams occur. Cats that are woken up during REM sleep may be disoriented, and may even act aggressively toward their owners. 

Additionally, REM sleep is the most restful and restorative sleep for pets. If you wake your cat up from REM sleep, you are limiting their ability to obtain needed rest. 

Why do cats sleep with their eyes open? 

In addition to twitching, you may have noticed another unusual behavior exhibited by cats when sleeping. Many cats sleep with their eyes partially open, at least some of the time. The first time you notice this, it can be a bit surprising!

Fortunately, it is completely normal for cats to sleep with their eyes open. During the lighter stages of sleep, many cats keep their eyes partially open so they can be alert to threats in their environment. Cats in the wild are constantly ready to avoid an attack from predators or another territorial cat, and our domesticated cats have retained this same level of alertness. 

cat sleeping with eyes open

(Image credit: Getty Images)

When to visit your veterinarian 

If you are concerned that your cat may be having seizures, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian. Record a video of your cat’s sleep movements on your phone, if possible, so your veterinarian can see the movements that are concerning you. 

Based on video observation and a thorough physical examination, your veterinarian can determine whether a further workup for neurologic disease may be indicated. 

Conclusion

In most cases, a cat twitching in sleep is nothing to be concerned about. Many cats move or twitch a bit during REM sleep, when they are dreaming. However, if your cat is violently twitching, showing behavior changes during their waking hours, or otherwise showing dramatic changes in their sleep habits, contact your veterinarian to determine whether a further medical workup is indicated.  

Dr. Barnette is a graduate of the University of Florida, where she received both her B.S. in Zoology and her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM). She has 15 years of clinical experience as a small animal veterinarian, treating dogs, cats, and occasional exotic patients. She now works as a freelance veterinary writer, creating educational content for veterinarians, veterinary team members, and dedicated pet owners. Dr. Barnette lives in southwest Florida with her husband and daughter (plus two cats, a dog, and a rescued dove!) and enjoys kayaking, biking, and hiking. Learn more about Dr. Barnette at www.linkedin.com/in/catherinebarnette.