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

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

Have you ever noticed a dog twitching in their sleep and wondered what’s going on? Is your dog having a dream or is there something seriously wrong? Pet owners will be pleased to know that it’s common for dogs to experience short periods of twitching, paddling, and even vocalisation when dreaming. 

However, it’s important to be able to recognise the difference between normal dreaming behavior and abnormal twitching that may be associated with a medical or neurological problem.

Remember if you’re unsure, the safest thing to do is seek the advice of a veterinarian!  

Is it normal for dogs to twitch in their sleep? 

Research has shown that like us, dogs experience stages of dreaming. Stages include rapid eye movement (REM), short-wave sleep (SWS), and non-rapid eye movement (NREM). During REM sleep, the brainstem suppresses the activity of the large muscle groups. This prevents excessive movement when we dream, but small amounts of twitching still take place. 

Dogs sleep for 12 to 14 hours a day on average, but this will vary depending on factors like age and activity level. For example, young growing puppies need a lot more sleep than mature adult dogs. Puppies and older dogs are also more likely to experience twitching when they dream, possibly due to development (puppies) or deterioration (senior dogs) of the brainstem and differences in sleep patterns.

Dreaming typically starts after your dog has been asleep for around 20 minutes. When your dog is dreaming, they may twitch for brief periods, around 30 seconds at a time. Twitching refers to small, involuntary movements, usually affecting the legs, head, and tail. 

Your dog may also vocalise or cry out, and their legs may kick out or paddle as if they’re running. During REM sleep, your pup’s breathing may also become more shallow than usual. 

Why do dogs twitch in their sleep? 

Brief periods of twitching are commonly associated with dreaming. However, twitching that is prolonged or accompanied by stiffness or full body convulsions is cause for concern. 

Twitching may be caused by abnormal neurological activity, such as seizures. It can also be caused by a number of other medical conditions including: 

  • Diabetes 
  • Low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia) 
  • Low body temperature (hypothermia) 
  • Toxicity (e.g poisons such as snail bait, medications, or toxic foods such as chocolate)
  • Diseases affecting major organs such as the kidneys or liver  
  • Arthritis 
  • Anxiety 

Dog lying on bed sleeping

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Is my dog dreaming or having a seizure? 

Though twitching during sleep can be normal, it’s important to be able to differentiate between dreaming and abnormal neurological activity, like a seizure.

 A seizure, also known as a fit or convulsion, is an involuntary disturbance of normal brain function and typically involves uncontrollable muscle movement. Seizures most commonly occur when a dog is awake, but they may also occur during sleep. 

Seizures may be partial (petit mal) where just one part of the body experiences uncontrollable movement (e.g. twitching or tremors). They can also affect the whole body, called a grand mal seizure. A grand mal-type seizure is what most people would recognise as a seizure or fit. 

Dogs will usually fall over onto their side with their eyes open. Their whole body will be tremoring, paddling and moving uncontrollably. 

They may also lose control of their bladder and bowels. After a seizure (post-ictal) your dog may be confused, disorientated, drooling, restless or experience other changes in behavior. 

How to tell if a dog is having a seizure while sleeping

During a seizure, your dog is temporarily unconscious and will not respond to your voice. However, it’s important to be very careful when attempting to wake a dog that may be sleeping, as they can startle and attempt to bite. Instead of touching your dog to rouse them, try gently and calmly calling their name to see if they respond to you.  

Why do dogs sleep with their eyes open? 

Dogs often sleep with their eyes partially closed. They may also sleep with one or both eyes open, especially when dreaming. When your dog’s eyes are partially open, you may also see their third eyelid, called thenictitating membrane, which is a pale pink color. 

During REM sleep, your dog’s eyes actually dart around in different directions under their eyelids, which is why this stage of sleep is known as Rapid Eye Movement! You might also notice that your dog sleeps with their eyes open after a recent anaesthetic or sedation due to the medications used. 

Aging dogs sleep with their eyes open more frequently as well. Although rare, sleeping with open eyes may also be indication of an underlying health problem. However, your dog would usually be showing other signs of illness, such as seizures or severe weakness.

dogs sleep with eyes open

(Image credit: Getty Images)

When to call the vet

If you have any concerns about your dog’s twitching it’s always best to check with a veterinarian. If you can, try to film your dog twitching so you can show your vet, as this may make it easier for them to make a diagnosis. 

Signs you should consult a veterinarian include:

  • Prolonged episodes of twitching lasting more than 30 seconds 
  • Loss of consciousness (no response to your voice) 
  • Twitching, tremors, or uncontrollable body movements when awake 
  • Loss of control of the bladder or bowels 
  • Stiffening and full-body tremors or convulsions
  • Foaming at the mouth  
  • Twitching accompanied by vomiting or diarrhea 

If you are concerned your dog is having a seizure which lasts longer than 5 minutes (status epilepticus) or they have had multiple seizures in a 24-hour period, you need to take them to an emergency veterinarian immediately.

Conclusion

Twitching is a normal part of your dog’s sleep and dream cycle. It’s important to know the difference between twitching and the abnormal neurological activity seen with seizures and other medical conditions. That way, both you and your pup can rest easy!

Ellen is an experienced small animal vet and copywriter who graduated from the University of Melbourne in 2012. She has worked in clinics across Australia, the UK and New Zealand, including the Massey University Veterinary Teaching Hospital where she discovered her passion for writing and education. Ellen’s veterinary interests include small animal medicine, surgery, nutrition, and rabbit medicine. She currently lives in Somerset with her fiancé and bouncy borzoi puppy named Yeti.