Why do dogs cry in their sleep?

Many dog owners will hear their dogs crying in their sleep from time to time. This can be worrying and a little upsetting, especially for a first-time dog owner who has not experienced this before. 

You may have noticed your dog yelping, whimpering or even screaming in his sleep and felt concerned. If you’ve ever wondered why do dogs bark in their sleep? or have other questions about your pup’s strange sleep behavior, read on for all you need to know!

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Why does my dog cry in his sleep?

It is not uncommon for dogs to cry in their sleep. Just like us, dogs dream when they are asleep and the crying is linked to periods of dreaming

Humans often mumble or even call out during a dream and dogs are no different. So if your dog is crying in his sleep, something in his dream is causing him to experience strong emotions

You may have wondered what do dogs dream about when they cry? The truth is that we really don’t know because we can’t ask them.

Although there have been some scientific studies into dog sleep behavior, we don’t yet have the technology to be able to see into our dogs’ dreams, so most of our knowledge is based on what we know about human sleep.

In one scientific study where the pons was temporarily deactivated (the pons is the brain area that prevents your dog from acting out his dreams), the dogs showed normal doggy behavior – such as chasing, hunting, and barking while they were asleep. 

This suggests that dogs dream about all the things that they do in real life! Crying in dogs may be caused by fear, frustration, excitement, or anticipation of something fun, so it is likely that your dog is experiencing these emotions in his dream.

Do dogs have dreams?

Yes, dogs do dream! Just like humans, dogs experience Non-REM sleep and REM sleep

During REM sleep, your dog’s brain becomes more active as it processes information from that day’s activities. Humans dream during REM sleep and we are fairly certain that the same is true for dogs. 

During doggy dreams you may notice vocalization and movement that reflect whatever your dog is dreaming about. 

Dogs get the best quality sleep when they are fully relaxed and feeling safe. They are more likely to dream when sleeping stretched out on their side or even on their back. 

You can read more about that here: Why do dogs sleep on their backs?

Do dogs have nightmares?

It is highly likely that dogs do have nightmares. Dogs experience a wide range of emotions- including negative emotions like fear and anxiety- so it would make sense that they have bad dreams as well as good ones. 

Dogs who have experienced traumatic events will often appear to have more nightmares and may howl or cry in their sleep. However, dogs who have not experienced trauma will also have nightmares from time to time, just like people do. 

If your dog seems to have a lot of nightmares, it is worth discussing this with your vet. It is important to make sure your dog feels as safe and secure as possible at night time

Some dogs certainly feel safer when sleeping in close proximity to their humans, you can read more about that here: Why does my dog lay on me?

Why does my dog whimper in his sleep?

Despite being non-verbal, dogs have a wide range of different vocalizations they can use to communicate. 

They may whimper or whine when they are anxious, frustrated, excited, or when trying to seek attention from people or other dogs. 

So why do dogs whimper in their sleep? It is likely that they are dreaming about something that elicits one of these emotions. 

Daily activities such as playing with other dogs or their owner, chasing birds, car rides, or trips to the vet are all things your dog may dream about that may cause him to whimper.

Why does my dog twitch in his sleep?

During REM sleep, you may notice your dog’s eyes moving around or even opening. 

You can read more about why your dog may twitch or open his eyes during sleep here: Why do dogs sleep with their eyes open?

When he is asleep, your dog’s main muscles are switched off by an area of the brain called the pons. This is essential to stop the dog physically acting out his dreams. The degree to which the pons effectively switches off the muscle movement can vary between dogs. 

It is thought that the pons is less well developed in puppies and has started to become less effective in older dogs, so you may see more sleep movement in very young and very old dogs. 

Twitching means that your dog is engaging in some physical activity in his dreams- maybe running or playing- but the pons is preventing the full range of movement. In some dogs, the twitching is quite extreme and the dog can appear to be running in his sleep. 

Most dog twitching in sleep is normal, but you can speak to your vet if you are concerned. 

Some dogs may also wag their tail in their sleep- you can read more about that here: Dog wagging tail in sleep: Doggy sleep questions answered

Why do dogs bark in their sleep?

Dogs bark in their sleep because they are barking in their dream. They may be having an exciting dream, chasing around with their doggy mates and barking in excitement. 

They may be barking with frustration at that bunny rabbit that is just too fast for them. Dogs also bark when anxious or fearful so you may hear them barking when they are having a bad dream. Most dog barking in sleep is normal and is nothing to worry about.

Suggested reading: How to stop dog barking at night

Should I worry if my dog screams or yelps in his sleep?

Many owners are understandably worried if their dog screams in his sleep. Dog screaming in sleep and dog yelping in sleep are both signs that the dog is having an emotionally-charged dream or even a nightmare

Dogs who have had traumatic experiences are more likely to scream or yelp in their sleep as their brain processes distressing events. 

However, a well-loved pet dog who has never experienced trauma may very occasionally still scream or yelp in his sleep when having a bad dream.

If your dog screams or yelps in his sleep more frequently, this is certainly something to speak to your vet about. Dogs yelping in sleep could be a sign of pain. 

Extreme sleep behaviors such as excessive vocalization, aggression, self-harming or even running around while asleep can all be signs of an REM sleep disorder. 

Take videos of your dog’s sleep behavior and make an appointment with your vet. Your dog may need further tests and referral to a veterinary neurologist for diagnosis. 

If your dog’s sleep behavior puts him, you, or other animals at risk, take steps to keep everyone safe and speak to your vet without delay.

What should I do if my dog cries in his sleep?

Most vocalization and twitching in sleep is normal and nothing to worry about. However, it can be distressing for an owner to see their dog having a bad dream and crying in their sleep. 

The good news is that dog sleep cycles are short so the dream won’t last very long. Some interesting research suggested that the length of a dog’s dream may be related to the size of the dog. 

Smaller dogs seem to have dreams that last only a minute or so, whilst larger dogs can dream for 5-10 minutes. Most dogs do not seem to be affected by their dreams when they wake up naturally.

You should resist the urge to wake your dog up as he may be startled and confused and there is a risk he could bite you. If you feel that you absolutely need to wake your dog from a bad dream, do so from a distance and by gently using your voice- don’t try to touch him.

If your dog often has vivid dreams and tends to move his legs quite a bit, make sure he is sleeping in a safe area. Move his bed away from household wires and anything else that he could get tangled in.

Why do dogs cry in their sleep? Final thoughts

Dogs have dreams and nightmares just like we do and some crying, whining, barking, and twitching in sleep is completely natural and nothing to worry about. 

Over time, you will get to know what is normal for your dog. Doggy sleep behavior may change gradually over their lifetime– often puppies and older dogs move around more in their sleep. 

If your dog’s sleep behavior suddenly changes, speak to your vet about this as any change in behavior can be a sign of an underlying medical problem. 

If your dog shows extreme sleep behavior such as frequent screaming, yelping, excessive movement, or aggression whilst still asleep, this could be a sign of a more serious sleep or neurological problem and you should certainly discuss this with your vet.

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