Saturday 15 December 2018

Sleep is a sweet mystery for pets as in humans

Cats love radiator beds: warm and comfy
Cats love radiator beds: warm and comfy

Pete Wedderburn - Animal Doctor

Sleep is one of life's great pleasures. At night we escape from our busy lives, and we awake the following morning, hopefully feeling refreshed. One of the joys of holidays is the freedom that we have to enjoy more sleep than we sometimes get during the working week. There's no need to set an alarm clock: we can wake up whenever we feel like waking up.

Humans need differing amounts of sleep, but the average seems to be seven to eight hours every night. I know young people who seem to be able to survive on a couple of hours sleep when they are in the middle of the party season, but that just isn't sustainable into the long term. A decent night's sleep seems to be one of life's essential needs, as important to us as eating, drinking and breathing. The science of sleep is still in its infancy: it's thought that sleep somehow allows the brain to reorganise itself and file away the day's happenings, ready for a new day. But we still don't really know much about this important part of our lives.

What about our pets? How much sleep do animals need? Do animals enjoy sleeping in the same way as we do? Do they dream like us? Some of these questions can't be answered, because animals can't talk to us. But by observing their behaviour, we can deduce certain truths.

First, there is a big difference in sleeping behaviour between different ages of animals. Young puppies and kittens sleep frequently in short naps. They have bouts of energetic, enthusiastic rushing around, then they flop down and sleep. So their days are made up of short periods of sleep, then they sleep at night-time just like older animals.

Adult dogs tend to have sleep routines similar to adult humans, with occasional snoozes during the day, but the main sleep being a stretch of six to eight hours overnight. This fits in well with the human routine in the household, which is just as well. Some dogs occasionally get out of kilter with this type of cycle, and they start to wake early, barking at 5am or even earlier. This can be very upsetting for owners, as well as for their neighbours.

I'm often asked for help with such cases and it is not always easy. In theory, you should not go to a dog that wakes early: if you respond by giving them what they want (a walk, food, or just attention) then this only encourages them to do it again the next night. So the best answer is to do your best to ignore them, and usually, they will settle down after a short period.

This approach needs to be adapted to the situation, of course. You need to be certain that your dog is not barking for a good reason, such as an overfull bladder or some other need, and it can be difficult to make this judgement. I remember once when my own dog started to bark at around two in the morning. After initially ignoring him, I gave in and went down to him. To my surprise, he was barking for a very good reason: he had been playing with a cardboard box, and he had somehow managed to get his head stuck in the base of it, so he couldn't pull it off. I had to gently detach him from the box, and after that, he settled down to sleep very happily.

There are some dogs that wake up and bark for no good reason: this is especially common in older dogs that may be suffering from early dementia. It's worth talking to your vet about such cases: sometimes sleeping tablet-type medication may be needed in the short term, to break the wakeful habit. And there are often tweaks to their daily routine that can help, such as going for a long walk soon before bedtime.

A comfortable bed is another way that people can improve their pets' sleeping habits. I recently bought my own dogs a special memory foam bed, and this has definitely had a positive impact on their sleeping habits. They both sleep far more in the daytime than they used to do. They love lying on the bed, and compete with each other to choose the best spot on it. In the end, they usually share it: it's big enough for two. Sometimes two of our cats join them at the same time, so there's just one big pile of animals snuggled up together on this large, comfy bed.

Cats tend to be less predictable in their sleeping behaviour than dogs, sleeping at any time of day rather than just during the night time. Many cats sleep during the day, spending the hours of darkness prowling around their territory.

I remember we always thought that one of our cats slept for nearly 24 hours a day, until I put a GPS tracker onto his collar. After a few days, I removed this and plugged it into my computer to see how he spent his time. To my surprise, he headed out at midnight every night, trekking through the neighbourhood for up to a kilometre around our home before coming home at dawn. It was no wonder that he was such a good sleeper in the daytime.

Like humans, as dogs and cats grow older, they tend to become less active, spending more time sleeping. Elderly dogs and cats sometimes seem to spend most of their time sleeping, just waking en for brief periods of excitement, such as dinner time or the return of their owner from work.

Animals dream, just like humans: scientists have recorded the electrical activity in their brain. But what do they dream about? That's another of life's great mysteries!

The Argus