Can Dogs Sleep With Their Eyes Open? Strange Behaviour Explained · The Wildest

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Can Dogs Sleep With Their Eyes Open?

Dogs: they’re not just like us

by Elizabeth Laura Nelson
26 January 2024
a puppy sleeping with their eyes open
Magida El-Kassis / Stocksy

Strange as it might seem (and as much as it might creep you out), dogs do occasionally sleep with their eyes open. The behaviour is primarily due to variations in canine sleep patterns. Unlike humans, dogs have a different sleep structure, incorporating more rapid eye movement (REM) sleep into their rest. While this might be disconcerting for some dog parents, it’s generally considered normal and doesn‘t necessarily indicate any health concerns. If there are other unusual behaviours or concerns about a dog’s sleep patterns, it’s always advisable to consult with a veterinarian for personalised advice and reassurance.

Still wondering what’s up with this funky behaviour? A dog sleeping with their eyes open and rolled back does look pretty strange, and can even be upsetting to a pet parent who hasn’t seen this behaviour before. The Wildest spoke to dog experts for more info on dogs sleeping with their eyes open: read on to find out what they said.

Why do dogs sleep with their eyes open? 

“It’s not unusual for dogs to sleep with their eyes partially open,” says Shaina Denny, co-founder and CEO of Dogdrop. “Some do this as a result of lighter sleep patterns, or due to their eyelids not fully closing during relaxation.” Here are some reasons your dog may be sleeping with their eyes open.

Your dog is experiencing the REM stage of the sleep cycle

Dogs, like humans, experience different stages of sleep – namely, rapid eye movement sleep (REM) and non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM). During REM sleep, the muscles relax, and your dog is likely to be deep in dreamland. This can lead to your dog twitching while sleeping with their eyes open. It looks strange, for sure, but it’s harmless.

Your dog may be alert

The way dogs cycle through sleep stages, and the length of time they spend in each, is very different from how we sleep. A study published in the April 1993 issue of Applied Animal Behaviour Science found that during eight hours of sleep, a group of dogs had 23 instances of waking and falling back to sleep. These cycles averaged 16 minutes of sleep and five minutes of wakefulness. “The pattern of sleeping and waking in dogs was quite different from that known to occur in humans,” the study authors write.

It may be that although your dog appears to be sleeping with their eyes open, they’re actually experiencing a period of alertness and will soon fall back to sleep (although they may not close their eyes, even then). Think of it this way: your dog is keeping watch and making sure you’re safe, even while they’re sleeping.

Your dog is dreaming

Another reason why dogs sleep with their eyes open is that they’re dreaming. “Dogs do dream! You might notice them twitching, paddling their paws or making little noises while asleep,” says Shaina.

As for what they‘re dreaming about, that’s anyone’s guess. Chasing squirrels at the park? Their favourite treat? If you’re worried your dog might be having a nightmare, you can always curl up and nap with them. It’s good for both of you!

Is it normal for dogs to sleep with open eyes?

Again, as weird as it may look, and even alarming if you’ve never seen this type of behaviour before, there is no cause for concern in most cases. “It is normal for dogs to sleep with their eyes open, or partially open, occasionally,” says veterinarian Nell Ostermeier, a spokesperson with Figo Pet Insurance. “This can depend on the individual dog and stage of sleep they are experiencing.”

A few other strange-but-usually-normal classic dog behaviours: sleeping all day, laying down on your feet, burrowing under the covers, twitching in their sleep and freaking out when they’re suddenly awakened.

Should I be concerned if my dog is sleeping with their eyes open? 

Many dog parents worry that there’s something wrong with their dog that’s causing them to sleep with their eyes open. But Dr Ostermeier offers words of reassurance. “If you only notice it occasionally, then there is no cause for alarm,” she says, and suggests gently waking your dog if you’re concerned. “If you do alert your dog, and they awaken easily and are acting normal once awake, then you shouldn’t worry.”

Symptoms to watch for if your dog is sleeping with their eyes open

There are some instances in which you should be concerned and contact your vet right away, says Dr Ostermeier. These include:

  • Your dog seems disoriented or lost, is not acting normal or is falling over when they wake up. This can indicate a seizure.

  • You notice redness, irritation or discharge from your dog’s eyes.

  • Your dog is falling asleep in unusual places, or at odd times of day.

“If your dog suddenly starts sleeping with their eyes open or displays other unusual behaviours during sleep, like excessive twitching or vocalisation, it might warrant a closer look,” adds Shaina. “Other symptoms to watch for include changes in sleep patterns, restlessness or signs of physical discomfort.”

Is there anything I should do if my dog is sleeping with their eyes open? 

Because sleeping with their eyes open is normal and generally not a cause for concern, you don’t need to do anything except keep your own eyes open for any of the symptoms above, such as disorientation, falling over, red or goopy eyes and unusual sleep behaviour. 

That said, Shaina says that at her dog daycare, they go to great lengths to provide a calm environment that fosters quality rest. If you want to help your pup get top-shelf sleep, try incorporating some of her suggestions into your dog’s next nap, such as playing a Zen music playlist or giving your dog a gentle massage – or both at the same time. “Incorporating moments of downtime in a dog’s day is just as crucial as engaging them in stimulating activities,” she says.

You can also ensure your dog gets good rest by giving them plenty of exercise so they’re thoroughly worn out and ready to snooze, and by making sure their crate or other sleep space is cosy and comfy for them.

Are there other conditions that can cause dogs to sleep with their eyes open?

While sleeping with their eyes open is indeed normal, it may be more likely in certain instances. An elderly, blind, sick or dying dog that sleeps with eyes open is not uncommon. That is not to say that a senior dog who sleeps with their eyes open is necessarily dying or sick. If you know your dog is unwell, though, you may also notice an increase in them sleeping with their eyes open.

Frequently asked questions

Do all dogs sleep with their eyes open? 

Not all dogs sleep with their eyes open, Dr Ostermeier and Shaina both say. Just like humans, dogs are individuals, and while of course they have some things in common due to being members of the same species (such as their quick-cycling wake/sleep cycle), any dog parent can attest to their pup’s unique personality and particular quirks.

Should I take my dog to the vet if they are sleeping with their eyes open? 

If your dog is exhibiting any concerning behaviour, if their eyes look irritated – red or goopy – or if you have a gut feeling something is wrong, it’s always worth contacting your vet for a closer look at what might be going on. That said, the experts we spoke with have emphasised that sleeping with their eyes open is a totally normal and expected dog behaviour.

Should I wake/avoid waking my dog if they are sleeping with their eyes open? 

“It‘s generally best to let a sleeping dog be,” says Shaina. “They’re likely in the midst of a dream state and waking them abruptly might startle them. However, if your dog appears distressed or seems caught in a nightmare, gently waking them with soft reassurance can help.”

How can I tell if my dog is dreaming?

“Dogs do dream, and during this time their body might twitch or shake, they may be vocal and they can have eye movement,” says Dr Ostermeier. If you’re tempted to wake your dreaming dog for fear they’re having a nightmare, she advises caution. “It is impossible to know whether your dog is having a good or bad dream and best to let them continue sleeping. This is because you might startle them, which could lead to an accidental nip or bite. If you do decide to wake them, it is best to go slow and use a calm voice.”


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Writer Elizabeth Nelson with her cat, Freddy

Elizabeth Laura Nelson

Elizabeth Laura Nelson is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York. As a child, Elizabeth was scared of cats (claws and teeth, yikes) but she has since gotten over her fear and now shares her home with three sweet and gentle feline companions who make life better (and cuddlier) every day.

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