Dog Nightmares: Causes and What to Do to Stop Dog Night Terrors

dog sleeping - Dog nightmares are not a cause for worry

The joy of owning a dog is immense. They become part of your family. You become concerned about their well-being as you do with your kids. Seeing them in distress or uncomfortable makes you concerned. Dog nightmares can get you really worried, more so because they often resemble seizures. Below we explore everything you need to know about dog nightmares.

Can Dogs Have Nightmares Really?

According to Stanley Coren, a professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of Columbia, dogs do dream and can even have nightmares (bad dreams), just like humans.

One can only guess what a dog experiences during nightmares, but as Coren says, dogs generally dream doggy things. Like humans, dog nightmares usually revolve around things that they fear. Unlike humans, however, dogs are not so good at imagination ofthe possible scenarios. In that regards, dog nightmares are more likely to be tied to their actual past experiences – memories – than a visualization of possibilities.

It could be a recent frightening experience at the vet, a fight with another dog, toenail clipping session, name it.

Whatever the event occurring in the nightmare, your dog will show it through body movements and sounds associated with distress ranging from growling to howling, whining, screaming, and barking. Even long term memories e.g. abuse, traumatic events, etc. can also cause dog nightmares.

Are Your Dealing with a Case of Dog Nightmares or Seizures?

During sleeps, dogs go through cycles: wakefulness (alertness), rapid eye movement (REM), and non-rapid eye movement (non-REM), says Coren. Dogs first fall into a light sleep characterized by easy, regular breathing.

It is only after 20 minutes of sleep or so that dogs enter the REM stage. This is the stage when vivid dreams, including nightmares, occur. Dog nightmares or dreams are believed to last longer in big dogs than in puppies.

If you observe your dog keenly, you may be able to notice irregular breathing (fast-paced chest movements) coupled with rapid eye movements. Puppies and old dogs tend to twitch during this sleep cycle.

When having a good dreams, dogs are likely to show signs such as twitching, kicking, and quiet noises. Dog nightmares on the other hand are often characterized by signs such as growling, crying, screaming, and other distress noises. The dog will also seem disturbed. Other signs of nightmare include tail wagging, thrashing, and yelping.

Signs of Seizures

Dog nightmares can be easily confused with seizures. You should suspect seizures if:

  • Your dog pees or have a bowel movement after a particularly violent “nightmare”. Dogs often lose their bowel and bladder function control after seizures.
  • Your dog has its eyes wide open, with a blank facial look.
  • The dog exhibits stiff or rigid leg movements as opposed to smooth twitches, kicks, or paddles like one would see when a dog is running or chasing another animal. Leg movements also tend to be short-lived and intermittent for dreams or nightmares but longer-lasting for seizures.
  • The dog cannot wake up no matter how progressively louder your voice gets.
  • Your dog displays uncontrollable shaking or violent muscle movements. These are classic signs of seizure. Dreams and nightmares would instead be characterized by gentle more gentle twitching that is confined to the legs, lips, and feet.
  • Your dog experiences difficulty walking after the perceived nightmare. This is a frequent aftereffect of seizures. A dog can also look confused or disoriented after coming to from a seizure.
  • Your dog bites its tongue, drool, or foam during the “nightmare”.

My Dog Has Nightmares, What Do I Do?

Dog nightmares can get you really concerned, wondering if there is anything you should do – if anything at all – to help your pooch come back to “life”. Worse still, dog night terrors can also lose your sleep. Here is a breakdown of thing you should do when your dog is having nightmares:

Leave the Dog Alone

An old adage goes, let sleeping dogs lie”. This cannot be truer than for dog nightmares. While it sounds compelling to gently pat your canine friend out of his sleep and save his from the “ghosts” in his dreams, that is not a good idea as many experts argue.

A dog that is woken up from a night terror may snap and scratch or bite – or even attack you – mistaking you for a subject of his nightmare. You don’t want the entire length of your dog’ canine teeth ripping through your hand, do you? Then, don’t touch him.

If your dog falls asleep while lying next to your watching TV only to suddenly start screaming or yelping in a nightmare, you are safe having some distance between you. You never know. They just may wake up suddenly and lush at you violently.

Attacks aside, it is also not a good idea to disrupt your dog’s sleep cycle, if possible.

Wake Your Dog in a Hushed Tone

If your dog is screaming or growling really loud, you may consider waking him up. The same holds true for dog nightmares that last more than a few minutes. If you feel that it is really necessary to wake your canine friend up, call his name in a low voice.

If calling your name doesn’t yield results, try raising the voice progressively until your companion friend wake up. Unless, the perceived “nightmare” is actually a seizure, your dog will in most cases wake up after a few calls.

Once the dog wakes up from his nightmare, speak to him in a calm, reassuring voice to help calm him down. Playing some soothing music can also help to calm your dog after night terrors and so can leaving the TV or radio on.

Try To Unearth the Root Cause of Dog Night Terrors

It is often possible to identify the cause of constant or frequent dog nightmares if you check critically. You can then stop the nightmares by getting rid of the identified cause.

Sometimes it is something as “harmless” as a TV show or some noises in the house during the time the dog is sleeping. Some dogs can even get anxious from having certain visitors in your house or loud noises from children playing in or near your house or yard.

When to See a Vet for Dog Nightmares

Although upsetting, dog night terrors are generally not a cause for concern. Your dog will forget it happened once he wakes up and move on with normal life. If nightmares however occur every night and your dog cries a lot, it is advisable to take a trip to your veterinarian.

To stop bad dog nightmares, veterinarians normally prescribes anxiety treatment medications. This helps your dog to relax and sleep soundly through the night and naptimes.

A supplement called Composure is commonly used for this purpose. Before you use any medicine to treat dog nightmares, however, you should consult with your veterinarian.

YouTube Video of a Dog with Nightmares

This funny YouTube video of a dog that is having nightmares will shed some light how they occur. See how the dog growls, yet appears relatively composed. This would not be the case with seizures:

References

Dr. Winnie
About Dr. Winnie 281 Articles
My name is Dr. Winnie. I earned a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Duke University, a Masters of Science in Biology from St Georges University, and graduated from the University of Pretoria Veterinary School in South Africa. I have been an animal lover and owners all my life having owned a Rottweiler named Duke, a Pekingese named Athena and now a Bull Mastiff named George, also known as big G! I'm also an amateur equestrian and love working with horses. I'm a full-time Veterinarian in South Africa specializing in internal medicine for large breed dogs. I enjoy spending time with my husband, 2 kids and Big G in my free time.

4 Comments

  1. The You-Tube Lab having nightmares is not what I’m experiencing. I recently rescued a Doberman. Other than getting used to the house noises & rules, she has been great. She listens well and very loving. But since I’ve had her almost every night she wakes me up. Her head is raised up and she is viciously snarling, snapping and growling. I try to sooth her, but do not put my hand close to her. I don’t know if it’s a past fear, how long it will last, or will stop as she becomes more secure.

    Note: The guy I got her from was proud that she was “professionally trained”, with a shock collar!!! Sometimes she grimaces showing her teeth. I’m wondering . . . . . People are so stupid!!

    • Dogs can be trained professionally with a shock collar. It may not be “your” choice of training method, but nonetheless it is a method. Done correctly and at the proper settings the dog is not harmed in any way. You don’t crank up the voltage to the max and sit there and electrocute the dog. That being said, not all dogs need to be trained using a shock collar. Some dogs only need to be trained with a shock collar for a few days, or a few weeks.
      All I ask is do the due diligence in a system before condemning it. It’s the same as breed discrimination. Just because you may not like pit bulls that doesn’t give you the right to ban them. Just some food for thought.

  2. Good information… Thanks
    Side note though. The video was more irritating than informative! The constant clicking was very distracting!

  3. My dos is not like the dog in the video he barks and cries and growls. When he wakes he sometimes coughs because of all the strain. He stares into the corner if you pull the blanket off him. Its creepy to say the least. I made the mistake of trying to touch him and his little chi teeth took some skin I have started him on King Kalm hoping that what ever is going on will subside. Some nights I’m woken up every 10 minutes. I wish my dog played there and bared his teeth.

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