The Animal Doctor

On Whether Cats Dream

DEAR DR. FOX: It’s common knowledge to anyone who has had a pet dog that they dream just like we humans do. They’ll be asleep on the floor, with their legs twitching and their mouths moving as if barking.

But I’ve never witnessed this in any pet cats that I’ve had. Do cats dream? I hope you can enlighten me. -- E.J.S., Dover Plains, New York

DEAR E.J.S.: Your question comes up on occasion in my column. Cats do indeed dream, entering the same rapid eye movement (REM) stage as humans and other animals. They exhibit the same low-amplitude, fast-frequency electrical brain activity seen in humans who, when awakened at that time, usually recall having been dreaming. Some people claim to never have dreams, good or bad, most probably because they never wake up in the middle of (or just after) a REM episode.

My wife, Deanna Krantz, and I can attest to the fact that cats and dogs do probably have the equivalent of nightmares. Regarding our recently rescued dogs, we would often hear them yelping and even howling terribly in their sleep, no doubt reliving past traumatic events. The same was true for one of our cats, whom we rescued as a survivor of several Minnesota winters. For his first two years with us, he would cry out in his sleep on many nights, and we would gently comfort him. This particular cat would “talk” for some time before going to sleep curled beside Deanna’s head and emit an extraordinary range of sounds, from coos and purrs to sighs and whispers.

One note: Always be cautious awakening any animal having a nightmare because the initial arousal reaction could be to bite or scratch out of terror.

Another rescued cat, who was semi-starved when we trapped him in midwinter, will do very tiny paw, ear and whisker twitches and flutters in his sleep, and sometimes make sucking sounds and knead with his paws as though nursing.

But cats generally show less physical activity than dogs when they are dreaming. They seem to have a different sleep pattern from dogs, enjoying frequent “cat naps,” from which they can awaken immediately, whereas awakening from a deeper dreaming state can be associated with an initial disorientation until full wakefulness is regained.

In general, let sleeping dogs and cats lie. And observe closely, especially when the old arthritic dog is woofing and wagging his tail and running like a puppy in his dreams, and the old cat is twitching his whiskers and flicking his tail at mice to catch.

DEAR DR. FOX: There is an internet controversy about whether or cats are allergic to essential oils diffused into the air. Can you please give me a factual answer? -- M.A.P., Washington, D.C.

DEAR M.A.P.: I have been a longtime user and advocate of essential oils for humans and other animals, with caution for cats because they lack an enzyme in the liver to detoxify some elements of the oils.

Generally, water-based extracts called hydrosols are considered safer than the concentrated oils for cats. But in small amounts and under veterinary supervision, oils are safe and effective for some oral diseases and for respiratory conditions, provided they are given via an aerosol evaporative diffuser. Allergic reactions to any biologically active substance is possible for any species, so the precautionary principle should be applied.

In the February/March 2018 edition of Animal Wellness Magazine, veterinarian Dr. Melissa Shelton helps dispel the widely held view that essential oils should never be used on cats in her article “Cats & Essential Oils: Unraveling the Controversy.” She asserts that the oils must be based on formulas created, tested and clinically evaluated by a veterinarian, because many on the market contain contaminants and adulterants that could be harmful to cats. She offers the website as one informative resource.

Hopefully, more studies will be conducted on these lifesaving and health-improving botanical products -- gifts indeed from the plant kingdom, which has yet to receive the respect and gratitude of our species.


Researchers filmed an orangutan in Borneo’s Sabangau Forest chewing Dracaena cantleyi leaves, then rubbing the resulting lather on her body to ease joint and muscle inflammation. Indigenous people use the plant for the same purpose, and a chemical analysis showed that extracts from the leaves inhibit inflammatory cytokines. -- The Independent, Jan. 12

(Send all mail to or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.

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