A sleeping kitty can fight your mid-winter blues and revive a seemingly unrecoverable lousy day. Between the slung-open mouth (aka ‘teefies’), rumbling snores, topsy-turvy positions, and occasional lip twitches, the entire scene makes you say, ‘aww…’ Most of these sleeping oddities keep Fluffy comfy as she naps, but why do cats twitch in their sleep?
Cats twitch in their sleep because they’re in a deep sleep (REM) linked to dreams. Eyelid jolts, vocal squeaks, and jerky paws stem from neurons firing in the brain and allowing your cat to participate in the storyline. The twitches may resume every 25 minutes as your cat cycles in and out of REM.
The first time you notice your cat twitching mid-nap, you might panic and fear the worst — a seizure. Rest assured, that bizarre twitching is ordinarily innocent and perhaps even a positive sign. To learn about why cats twitch in their sleep, read on!
Breaking Down Feline Sleep Cycles
If cats have one favorite hobby, it’s probably the one they dedicate 15-20 hours a day to — sleep. The feline sleep cycle is as irregular as they come, sometimes consisting of a 15-minute snoozefest during mid-afternoon and other times a three-hour nightly nap without a single blink.
To understand why cats twitch while sleeping, you should learn about the average sleep cycle:
- Slow-wave sleep: An exhausted kitty will dip into this phase shortly after shutting her eyes. The slowed brain activity eases a cat into the dream-laden REM sleep that follows.
- REM (rapid eye movement) sleep: This deep sleep phase is when cats do the most dreaming. A cat in REM sleep will have darting eyes beneath its eyelids and have a cerebral cortex in high alert. REM usually only lasts for about five minutes at a time.
- Light sleep: After escaping these vivid, body-shaking dreams, a sleeping cat will return to a light sleep stage. This dozing stage is still restful, but your cat might be more aware of her surroundings. Sudden noises or movements might jostle her awake. Light sleep will account for about 75% of a cat’s daily snoozing.
A tired cat will alternate between non-REM and REM sleep about every 25 minutes or so, but it’s what happens during those deep sleep phases that trigger the oh-so-adorable twitching.
Why Cats Twitch While Dreaming
Cats twitch while sleeping because their brains mistake REM sleep for being awake. While your cat appears almost lifeless with completely relaxed muscles (atonia), her brain is far from drowsy. It’s still firing off electrical impulses that send a jolt to nerves scattered from nose to tail.
These signals cause involuntary spasms, jerks, and twitches during this brief paralysis, like:
- Rustling cheek whiskers
- Small tail twitches
- Wiggling toes or swaying paws (running feet)
- Unusual sounds (whimpering, snoring, chattering, or rumbling noises)
- Sudden stretching
- Ear, eye, or lip spasms
Cats are notorious for having quite vivid dreams as they lounge in REM sleep. Just like you might stiffen your body while having a downright terrifying ‘falling’ dream, your kitty’s twitches could merely be a response to a captivating dream plot.
The swishing tail and gut-wrenching whimpers aren’t the only unusual sleeping habits in cats. The video below overviews standard feline sleeping oddities (and what they could mean):
What Do Cats Dream About?
A slumbering cat might not have nightmares about upcoming deadlines or pleasant dreams about blossoming relationships, but they do enjoy cat-themed dreams that can cause twitches. Your cat’s jerky paws, absurd chattering, or tail spasms might stem from these dream topics:
- Hunting down rodents or toying with mice in their paws
- Sprinting to dodge predators like coyotes or wolves
- Batting around a crinkled ball or Q-tip
- Munching on a juicy salmon dinner or crunchy treats
- Stalking (or just sneaking up on) the neighborhood stray dog
- Snuggling next to you or your other cat on the couch
The jury’s still out on precisely what races through a kitty’s mind as she sleeps because it’s not as simple as asking her. Here’s what we do know: a cat will dream about what she knows.
Whether it’s a peaceful sunbathing session or a heart-thumping escape route, a cat’s day-to-day activities may inspire her twitchy dreams. Watch your kitty as she twitches, and you might be able to decipher what she’s dreaming (i.e., jerky paws might signal chasing down prey).
Other Reasons a Cat May Twitch
There are dozens of reasons a sleepy kitty might wiggle her nose or bat her paws around as she catches Zs. Electrical impulses in the brain during REM or enjoying a riveting dream plot are the most common culprits, but a sudden mid-nap twitch onset could also come from:
- Allergens like dust mites or pollen that cause itchy skin (miliary dermatitis)
- An undiagnosed flea infestation
- Feline hyperesthesia syndrome (FHS)
- Epileptic seizures (haywire neuron misfirings that cause convulsions)
- Stress (i.e., moving to a new home, onboarding a new cat, or buying new furniture)
A cat’s sleep cycle changes as she progresses into her adult — and later her senior — years. Since young kittens dedicate more time to sleeping each day, that also delivers more REM sleep and twitching opportunities. These sleepy time muscle jerks can help strengthen a kitty as she naps. Thus, age is an often-overlooked factor for sleep twitches.
Should You Awaken a Twitching Cat?
The drawn-out whimpers, forced wheezing, and spasming paws might tug at your heartstrings as an empathetic cat owner. However, these comatose twitches are entirely normal and don’t require you to rescue your cat by awakening her mid-nightmare.
Resist the urge to nudge her awake, shout her name, or soothe her with relaxing backstrokes. The twitching will likely end within five minutes anyway once she returns to the calmer, light sleep phase. Plus, would you want to be woken up amid an exhilarating dream? Probably not.
How to Know if a Cat Is Having a Seizure
Sporadic lip curls, a lashing tail, or vibrating whiskers might trigger a doomsday mindset: is my beloved cat having a seizure? It’s possible, but normal twitching and epileptic seizures are very easy to distinguish in our feline pals. Here are the signs a cat is experiencing a seizure:
- Full-body convulsions, not minor muscle, whisker, or paw twitches
- Inability to awaken (won’t bat an eye if you nudge or shout)
- Unusually stiff or locked-out legs
- Excessive salivation, pacing, or low appetite after the seizure concludes
- Strange, worrisome vocalizations
- Uncontrolled peeing or pooping during the seizure
A grand mal seizure might last about 1-2 minutes and shake the bed or sofa, where innocent sleep twitches may end after a few seconds and go unnoticed. The clearest indicator that your cat is having a seizure is comparing her body movements to her regular nap behaviors. If she typically swishes her tail but is now growling and drooling while convulsing, it’s likely a seizure.
Use your cat’s behavior post-twitch to judge whether it’s normal or not. If she resumes her nap or rolls over for chest scratches, all is well!
A twitching, sleepy kitty might be the highlight of your day. However, if the trembling starts happening as your cat is wide-awake or causes visible frustration, it could be something more sinister: feline hyperesthesia syndrome or a seizure.
Don’t take the ‘wait and see’ approach! Schedule a vet visit immediately if this twitching disrupts your kitty’s normally-restful cat naps, her appetite is fading, or if she appears disoriented once the jerkiness ends.
Otherwise, those twitches are a sign of a rich imagination and a realistic dream. Don’t forget to snap videos of those curling lips and adorable squeaks in action!
- Cornell Feline Health Center: Hyperesthesia Syndrome
- Sleep.org: Sleep Habits of Cats
- Humane Society: Understanding feline language
- VCA Hospitals: Miliary Dermatitis in Cats
- International Cat Care: Seizures/epilepsy in cats
Pam is a self-confessed cat lover and has experience of working with cats and owning cats for as long as she can remember. This website is where she gets to share her knowledge and interact with other cat lovers.