Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

Sleep Tight

What our dogs’ sleep habits tell us about them -- and ourselves

By Kim Campbell Thornton

Andrews McMeel Syndication

Dogs have shared our lives for millennia, and that includes our beds. We have similar sleep times and sleep habits. Like us, dogs typically take longer to fall asleep in strange places, their sleep habits change with age, and they snore.

It’s no wonder that sleep researchers find dogs to be important models for studying human sleep-related cognition. Humans and dogs tend to sleep primarily at night, and dogs’ daily sleep duration is eight to 14 hours -- compared to eight hours for humans and 12 to 15 hours for cats.

Working with family dogs and noninvasive polysomnography -- the use of sensors to monitor physiological signs like brain waves, eye movements, heart rate and breathing patterns -- researchers are able to learn more about how sleep affects cognitive processes such as memory consolidation and emotion processing. Along the way, they’ve learned more about canine sleep experiences.

If you are middle-aged or older, or live with a dog who is, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that older dogs sleep more. Dogs who have had a physically or mentally active day because of competition or advanced training sleep soundly, too. Compared to dogs who have had a more typical (read: less active) day, they become drowsy earlier, moving quickly to the sleep stages called NREM (non-rapid eye movement) and REM (rapid eye movement).

The NREM stage is when the body repairs and regrows body tissues, builds bone and muscle, and strengthens the immune system. REM sleep stimulates areas of the brain that aid learning and are associated with increased protein production.

We don’t know, though, whether dogs experience the intense dreams that humans do during REM sleep.

“Dogs are not able to tell us what they experienced during their sleep, so we can’t tell whether they dream or not,” says Vivien Reicher at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, Hungary, lead author of a sleep study in family dogs published in February in the Journal of Sleep Research. “Intuitively, of course, we can claim that a dog is dreaming when he or she seems to run, or whines while sleeping. The signs of dreaming -- in REM sleep, specifically -- are similar to humans: rapid eye movements, irregular respiration and heart rate, limb and body movements and twitching.”

Dogs with smushed faces, such as bulldogs, French bulldogs and pugs, may have trouble sleeping. You’ve probably been kept awake by their snoring. While more investigation needs to be done, Reicher says in an email, these dogs’ poor respiration, related to their abnormal upper airway anatomy, can result in decreased sleep quality.

Dogs also have a problem that many of us can identify with: They don’t fall asleep easily in strange places. At home, they reach REM sleep earlier than they do if they’re staying at someone else’s home, a boarding kennel or a sleep laboratory. But dogs who are used to sleeping away from home reach NREM and REM sleep much more quickly than dogs who rarely do so.

“These findings are consistent with human studies, suggesting that a novel and potentially stressful environment plays a crucial role in sleep quality,” Reicher says. “Presumably, dogs that sleep only at home are more sensitive to laboratory conditions, and those dogs that regularly accompany their owners for longer periods outside their home environment are more experienced and therefore less excited (at the sleep laboratory).”

What does all this tell us about ourselves? Dogs are increasingly recognized as models for human neuropsychiatric conditions, including sleep disorders such as narcolepsy (which can be inherited in dogs) and the disordered breathing that causes snoring and sleep apnea.

“Dog sleep research might open up new directions for investigation of the links between environmental factors and brain mechanisms underlying cognitive dysfunctions, which could help (us) better understand complex dog and even human phenotypes,” Reicher says.

One way or another, our dogs are going to help us sleep better.


Living with

a deaf pet

Q: We’re considering adopting a pet who is deaf. Do you have any tips on safety and communication?

A: One of the things I love best about being a veterinarian is seeing the accommodations people make for pets with disabilities. Deafness is common in dogs and cats of any age. Some are born deaf, while others develop hearing loss as they age. The following tips can help you get your pet’s attention, communicate with her and keep her safe.

-- Sign language. Both dogs and cats are good at learning hand signals and even American Sign Language. Hand signals include a raised hand for “stop,” a hand moving upward for “sit,” and a hand moving down and back for “down.” Give a thumbs-up, followed by a treat or other reward, when your pet does something you like. If you’re teaching ASL, your pet’s favorite words might be “dinner,” “walk,” “play” or “outside.”

-- Visual signals. Keep a small flashlight at hand. If you need to get your pet’s attention, flash it in her direction (not in her eyes, please). She’ll learn that when she sees the flash, she should look for you. If you’re in front of her, you can wave your hand to get your pet’s attention, or use the universal signal of pointing two fingers at your eyes to indicate that she should look at you.

-- Good vibrations. Animals are highly sensitive to vibrations. If you’re coming up behind her, stomp your foot (not right next to her) so she’ll know where you’re coming from. If she’s sleeping beneath a table or desk, you can tap the surface to get her attention.

Work with a positive-reinforcement trainer to teach your pet these cues. For more about deafness in cats, see this article: -- Dr. Marty Becker

Do you have a pet question? Send it to or visit


Chihuahua named

hero dog of the year

-- A longhaired Chihuahua named MacKenzie received the 2020 Hero Dog Award from American Humane for her work educating kids. She visits schools, teaching children about kindness toward animals and people with physical differences; about caring for baby animals with birth defects; and about the importance of social skills, play and manners for us all. MacKenzie was born five years ago with a cleft palate and was tube-fed for nearly a year before being able to have lifesaving surgery. She has since helped hundreds of other animals, giving back more than anyone could have imagined. Other nominees, all worthy of a win, are Remington, a retired search-and-rescue dog; Aura, a hearing service dog; Blue II, a military dog who saved many lives through her ability to find IEDs; Cody, a law-enforcement dog who specializes in explosives detection; Dolly Pawton, a cardiac alert dog; and Olive, a therapy dog who works in Missouri’s judicial system.

-- Cats being treated at the University of California at Davis’s Small Animal Clinic can now recover in a new feline treatment and housing suite that combines hospitalization and treatment wards. This minimizes transport time and stress for sick cats, making it more efficient for veterinarians and technicians to treat multiple hospitalized cats -- some 5,000 per year, with 50 to 75 at a time during wildfires or other large community emergencies. The new facility includes sound-dampening features throughout to reduce stress caused by barking dogs in nearby wards.

-- Rabbits and hares are related, but not identical. Both are found in many parts of the world, and there are hundreds of species and varieties of these long-eared herbivores. Hares tend to be larger, with longer ears and black markings on their fur. Most rabbits live underground in burrows or warrens. Cottontails are the exception: Like hares, they live in nests on the ground.

-- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker


Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by “The Dr. Oz Show” veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker, founder of the Fear Free organization and author of many best-selling pet care books, and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. Joining them is behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.