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Have you noticed your dog twitching in his sleep? This could be rapid, sudden movements in their limbs, tail, ears, or head—or really any muscle in their body. They might look like they’re dreaming about chasing rabbits, their body might jerk about, and they might even bark!
Seeing your dog twitch or tremor can be a bit alarming if you don’t know what’s going on. But twitching in sleep is usually nothing to worry about. In fact, it’s OK to leave your dog alone and let them finish out the dream cycle so that they feel restored when they wake up. But
Learn all about the reasons your dog might twitch in their sleep, when to be concerned, and how to manage night tremors below.
Why Do Dogs Twitch In Their Sleep?
We spoke to Dr. Chryle Bonk, DVM, veterinarian for the Clearwater Valley Veterinary Clinic in Orofino, Idaho, and Julie Burgess, CPDT-KA, certified dog trainer and veterinary technician at Senior Tail Waggers, about this curious night-time behavior. Both experts agree that sleep twitching in dogs is completely normal and can indicate:
- dreaming or deep sleep
- muscles relaxing
- memory consolidation
- being startled
- participation in healthy enrichment activities
“Twitching during sleep is normal and is often an indication that your dog is dreaming or has been startled by a noise,” says Dr. Bonk. You may see your dog’s paws paddling or toes wiggling for small 5 to 10 second intervals.
Another reason? Muscle reflexes. “When we start to fall asleep, our muscles relax,” Burgess says, comparing the similarities of our system to dogs. “As [our muscles] relax, they jerk unexpectedly and can even wake us up! Dogs also twitch as they’re falling asleep, or have been asleep for a while.”
Like humans, dogs have sleep cycles that include both REM and non-REM sleep. REM sleep can also be called “active” sleep, as this is when brain activity is high, heart rate speeds up, breathing is irregular, and dreams most often occur. This is the period of the sleep cycle when your dog is likely to experience twitching.
Since twitching can be a sign of deep sleep in dogs, it’s a good idea not to wake them up. Research shows that sleep may help a dog’s memory.
Sleep twitching vs. seizures
However, while a dog twitching in their sleep is normal, a seizure is not. This is something that is a serious concern and requires veterinary attention.
Dr. Bonk specifies that a seizure will differ from normal twitching with the following symptoms:
- Generalized instead of isolated movements
- Prolonged and repeated movement
- Loss of bladder and/or bowel control
- Excessive drooling
If you suspect your dog is having a seizure, call the emergency vet and get seen as soon as possible.
Is Your Dog Twitching or Shivering?
Any breed of dog, at any age, can twitch in their sleep. You may also see shivering, which is very different from twitching, but we included it in this list as there are some situations where both can occur.
Twitching occurs with dreams and nightmares
According to Dr. Bonk, dogs go through the same sleep phases that we do. Including the REM stage when they’re deep in sleep and dreaming. They may look like they’re running, jumping, or swimming and even whimper and whine while dreaming.
A nightmare will look a lot like a dream, just more intense. But it’s best not to wake them up unless they are very distressed or you think they may hurt themselves.
Shivering is a product of feeling cold or anxious
Instead of just isolated movement in one part of the body, a cold dog will have small tremors all over. If you think your dog might be suffering from cold in the night, it’s a good idea to move their bed to a warmer area of the house, or give them a blanket to snuggle up with.
Trembling from fear or anxiety will look more like shivering from cold than normal sleeping twitches. You’ll notice all over tremors, and a dog may whimper or whine.
Like humans, dogs can suffer from anxiety, and one of the most common reasons in dogs is separation anxiety. If you are worried about your dog’s sleep and health while you’re on vacation, you may want to look for a dog sitter who can provide constant care. Preparing an anxious dog for boarding is definitely a more involved process.
Twitching can be a health concern
Older dogs can be more prone to twitching due to discomfort from health issues, cognitive decline, or if they become uncomfortable or confused in their environment. You may see increased movement during sleep as a way to get more comfortable, so consider getting your older pup an orthopedic dog bed that offers more support. It’s also a good idea to schedule a regular vet appointment to get your elderly pooch checked out for potential medical causes.
When to Call the Vet
If twitching becomes more than a few quick jerks and becomes a sustained tremor or shake, it can indicate an underlying problem. Call your vet if your dog:
- loses control of their bladder or bowels or vomit
- is also panting or breathing fast while sleeping
- twitches or tremors continue while your dog is awake and active
How to Improve Your Dog’s Sleep
Twitches are often an indicator that your dog is deep in dreamland. However, if you’re worried your dog isn’t getting the optimal sleep experience, there are lots of things you can do to help! Our veterinary experts have listed their top tips to ensure your best furry pal gets the most out of their Zzz’s:
- Make sure your dog gets adequate exercise for their breed and size
- Offer daily playtime to keep them stimulated—try out some of these great toys
- Provide a sleeping area that’s comfortable and quiet
- Get a bed that’s supportive and appropriate for their needs and size.
- Set up a bedtime routine
- Keep in mind when to feed your dog, so they don’t go to bed too full, or with an empty stomach
- Have an extra blanket or two nearby so they can burrow if they get cold
- Reduce exposures to triggers throughout the day
Watching your dog twitch, tremor, or jerk in their sleep might seem strange. But usually it’s completely normal—and something we humans do too! So if your dog looks like he’s happily chasing rabbits in his dream, you’re okay with just leaving him to it.
However, if the twitching is prolonged and you think your dog might be having a seizure, be sure to contact your vet right away.