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Science Says Sleep Research Could Not Have Been Possible Without Cats

Cats are to thank for sleep research!

To most people, the term ‘sleep’ conjures up the idea of relaxation and peace after a long day. However, the human body goes through a lot of changes during the hours that we are unconscious. From rectifying the harm done during the day to preparing for the next day, your body is continuously refreshing, sorting, and repairing. So, each time you wake up and feel like a different individual, know that there could be some truth to that thought.

Nevertheless, we wouldn’t have had that deep understanding of human sleep if it weren’t for cats. How’s that? Read on to find out.

Although our feline companions are found in more than a third of all households, there is still a lot that we do not know about them. And one of those things is that cats assisted in ushering in the Golden Age of sleep research.

Our furry little friends are obligate carnivores just like their larger cousins, which means they have to hunt in order to survive. As such, just like other predators, they usually save their energy for the peak hunting times, which is around dawn and dusk. This explains why your cat can sleep up to 20 hours a day. And since domestic cats are still very closely related to their wild cousins, they have retained those behaviors even though they are fed by humans. This behavior is what made them the ideal subjects to study to learn more about sleep.

Just like humans, cats dream in stages. We can study the dreaming states of animals just like we do with humans in a sleep lab: attach to them a bunch of electrodes to monitor their brain activities through an electroencephalogram (EEG) scan, visual monitoring, as well as checking their pulse and blood pressure. We are also capable of switching off the paralysis that occurs during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep to observe what they do when acting out their dreams.

The EEG scan is what enabled our first real progress in sleep research when William Dement discovered REM sleep in cats in 1958. Michael Jouvet, a French Physiologist, also did similar work that was very instrumental in the Golden Age of sleep research. Cats were a major part of the research for both of these researchers.

Discovering REM sleep was another monumental step in the field of sleep research. Nevertheless, the initial report that revealed a connection between dreaming and REM sleep was met with indifference by many people, who at the time, believed that any discussion involving dreams was just popular science, and thus not worthy of scientific exploration. In fact, a lot of scientists took the field of research with a grain of salt, particularly the connection between REM and dreaming, until they observed it in cats.

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By the time William Dement published his findings on REM sleep, Jouvet had already discovered the twitching of paws and other muscles during their sleep was a likely indication of dreaming in cats. Jouvet referred to REM sleep as paradoxical sleep because of brain activity that could not be distinguished from that of a person who was awake. Thrilled, he dove deeper into his research and soon realized that cats exhibited paralysis during this stage of sleep.

Just like humans, cats also seem to experience procedural dreams during NREM (non-REM) sleep. Also, as with humans, a cat’s muscles are also active during NREM sleep allowing them to sleep sitting. An EEG scan of a cat sleeping in this position revealed the typically large and slow waves of non-REM sleep. Additionally, about 75% of a cat’s sleep is NREM.

During a REM sleep, a cat typically dreams about the things they have done or seen during the day. For instance, if they were watching from a window or went out on a leash, they may dream about all those sights and scents. They seem to dream about their day encounters. As such, they might have happy dreams, stressful dreams, sad dreams, or even a nightmare.

Additionally, cats under the age of three are susceptible to feline insomnia. Nevertheless, only a small percentage of kittens suffer from this condition, and fortunately, it clears up as the cat matures.

This research is the foundation upon which all our knowledge about sleep was built. As such, if you have ever sought out help about a sleep issue, just remember that we would not know as much about it as we do today were it not for cats.

Cat-lovers need to see this!