Have you ever seen a dog lying down asleep, but his muscles are twitching and jerking? Actually, it happens to humans too, but we are asleep and probably don’t notice! Involuntary muscle twitching is called myoclonus and it routinely occurs in both species.
Dogs are actually a lot like us when they sleep. Polysomnography (a sleep study that records brain waves) proves that dogs experience similar brain changes when sleeping as humans. They can engage in all kinds of movements, twitches and leg movements. Some dogs will even bark or whine while sleeping. Myoclonus for people has been more thoroughly studied and is thought to occur in the phase right before deep sleep.
Sleeping movements can be associated with dreaming as well. Dreaming seems to occur in humans with Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. Some people move or even speak while they dream. People and dogs share a lot of sleep similarities, even some sleep disorders. Narcolepsy, a disorder characterized by excessive daytime sleepiness and cataplexy (sudden physical collapse) has been found to occur in both species. It is not surprising that myoclonus too occurs in both of us.
For human beings, myoclonus can become a sleep disorder, be disruptive, and require medical treatment, but humans are able to verbally report that they feel tired and sleep deprived. Our dogs cannot make such claims, so if you notice that the myoclonus wakes your dog, (especially if he seems tired or lethargic), happens more than transiently or occurs when your dog is awake, you must notify your veterinarian. Involuntary twitching while awake could actually be a sign of a seizure disorder and should be investigated.
But don’t worry, myoclonus is not usually a problem and normal healthy dogs (and people for that matter) twitch while sleeping. It is not usually a cause for concern, but it is a good idea to be very observant of how and when your dog is sleeping so that you would know if something was amiss.
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