You may just be getting ready for bed, but chances are your dog is sleeping already, snoring soundly and possessively taking over three-quarters of your bed. Dogs sleep a whole lot more than humans, typically twelve to fourteen hours a day. And just like humans, they have all sorts of odd sleeping habits. But if they sleep with their eyes open, is that just another quirky habit? Or should you be concerned?
Is It Normal for Dogs to Sleep With Their Eyes Open?
Yes, indeed. It is perfectly normal for many dogs to sleep with their eyes open just a crack. You may do it yourself or know someone close to you who does.
There are situations, however, when you might think your dog is sleeping with his eyes open when he’s not asleep and seriously ill instead. You’ll know he’s ill because of other accompanying symptoms. We’ll get to that later.
Is It Unhealthy for Dogs’ Eyes to Be Open All the Time?
Like humans, dogs naturally blink their eyes. The most important reason for this is to protect them from dirt and debris and to keep them moist. So, it stands to reason that if your dog’s eyes are open too much or too long that their eyes may become damaged.
But while human and dog eyes are similar in the need to blink regularly, there are also some major differences between human and dog eyes (1). One important difference is that dogs have an extra layer of protection, a third eyelid called a nictitating membrane. This membrane generally opens and closes automatically along with the outer eyelids. However, when a dog’s eyes are only partially open while sleeping, the third eyelid over each of his eyes remains closed to protect his eyeballs.
Scientists theorize that the third eyelid is a result of the evolutionary process. While your pup is likely only to get an affectionate hug from you, his ancestors raised in the wild might not have been so fortunate. It is believed the third eyelid developed as a defense mechanism to protect dog ancestors from predators. After all, a dog in the wild that is sleeping but who appears awake is less likely to be attacked.
Are There Any Eyelid Disorders That Cause Harm to the Third Eyelid?
Cherry Eye and Lagophthalmos can both afflict the third eyelid. These and other eyelid disorders can be congenital or may be caused by injury or infection.
The Cherry eye occurs when the third eyelid becomes enlarged, flips over, and protrudes preventing it from protecting the eyeball beneath. It is most common in dogs less than two years of age and can result in dry eyes due to the eye not being properly lubricated. The Cherry eye will appear as a pink or red bulge at the inner corner of the eye and may be accompanied by eye discharge and abnormal tearing. It can be repaired surgically.
Lagophthalmos in canines is a condition where dogs are unable to completely close their eyes which can result in irritation of the eyes and dryness. It is most common in short-faced dog breeds such as Pugs and Pekingese. In some cases, lagophthalmos can be treated surgically, or if that is not possible, it can be treated with regular eye lubrication.
Should I Worry If My Dog is Asleep With Open Eyes and Twitching?
Perhaps the better question to ask is: Do Dogs Dream? If you’ve ever heard the question, it was most likely asked by someone who has never owned one. When we see our furry friends occasionally twitching, growling, or whimpering in their sleep, it’s difficult not to believe they’re having some kind of dreamy experience. When a dog dreams he may be fetching a stick or chasing a pesky squirrel. Or he may be encountering that big dog at the end of the block that he’s a bit afraid of.
If when your dog sleeps, his eyes are open and he’s twitching, he’s probably fine, especially if you call his name gently and he relaxes. If, however, you are observing this behavior in your dog on a regular basis, your dog may be suffering from REM Behavior Disorder, which is often brought on by stress. In some cases, the situation can worsen where your dog may start walking or running in his sleep and risking injury to himself. You can help your dog overcome the disorder by paying closer attention to his needs such as providing him more attention and exercise.
When a Twitch Isn’t a Twitch
If your canine companion is unresponsive and with wide-open eyes and a blank expression, if his twitching is more like convulsing, then he may be having a seizure. This may be accompanied by moaning or howling, shaking, foaming at the mouth, and loss of control of his bladder and bowels. Seizures are frightening occurrences, made worse because there is little you can do but ride them out until they run their course.
When your dog is going through this experience, don’t try to wake him as he may lash out or bite you in his confusion. During a seizure, you may notice his movements are stiffer than when he is simply chasing a ball in his sleep. When he comes out of it, he’ll likely be breathing with greater difficulty and may act disoriented.
Try to keep him clear of anything that may hurt him if he is thrashing about and simply soothe him when the episode is over. Then bring him to your vet as soon as possible.
What Other Conditions Are Cause For Concern?
If your dog is having regular seizures, he may be suffering from epilepsy. When experiencing an epileptic seizure, a dog will be unresponsive with open and unfocused eyes. Many seizure disorders can be treated with medication that helps reduce their frequency and intensity.
Like their human counterparts, dogs who suffer from narcolepsy find it difficult to regulate their sleep. Dogs with this normally hereditary condition will often doze off suddenly, dropping to the floor even in the middle of an activity. Their eyes may remain open as the change is quite sudden. If your pup suffers from narcolepsy, talk to your vet. She may be able to treat his condition with medications that can reduce the frequency of attacks.
If your dog’s eyes are only partially closed when he is trying to sleep, there is also the chance he is completely awake and unable to get the z’s he needs. He may not have the energy to get up, but his insomnia also keeps him from the ability to drift off to sleep.
This could be a sign of an underlying health condition or of simply being uncomfortable overall. Older dogs (and some younger ones too) may develop urinary tract infections that make them uncomfortable. They may suffer from joint pain. Other causes of insomnia include anxiety due to not getting enough activity and mental stimulation. Or they may just have fleas.
When treating insomnia, it’s best to determine and treat the underlying cause of the problem. Talk to your vet about the best course of action. A more comfortable dog bed or more frequent walks and playtime in an invisible dog fence can often make a world of difference.
Why does my older dog sleep with his eyes open?
Often older dogs sleep with their eyes partially open because they are in a lighter stage of sleep, in a half-awake/half-asleep state. A dog sleeping in this way may be dozing but is still somewhat alert and aware of his surroundings. As a dog ages, he likely needs to sleep more than he once did, and it’s natural he may have more frequent lighter naps. An older dog may also be tired but unable to sleep as deeply because he is less comfortable. These factors can impact the quality and quantity of his sleep.
Why do dogs dream with their eyes open?
Without getting too technical, it’s important to keep in mind that while you may think dogs are sleeping with their eyes open, dogs have a third eyelid, a membrane that ensures the eyeball is covered. That being said, the sleep stages of dogs are quite similar to humans. Typically, about twenty minutes after a dog falls asleep, his breathing will become more shallow and his muscles may begin to twitch. This is a sign that he is entering REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and his eyes will begin to dart back and forth behind the lids. Whatever he is dreaming, his eyes are visually following whatever he is seeing.
Is it normal for dogs to die with their eyes open?
It’s not abnormal. Dogs’ eyelids are controlled by two muscles–the orbicularis oculi that close the eyelids and the levator palpebrae superioris that opens them. These muscles have no natural state, so whether a dog’s muscles opens or closes his eyelids at the time of death is largely dependent on what the dog was doing at that moment in time.
If Fido is sleeping when he dies, then his eyes will be closed. If he suffers an untimely death while awake and lucid, then they will be open. And if he is resting or sleeping with his eyes partially open when he passes, then his eyes will remain in that partially open position.
Do dogs prefer to sleep with the light on?
Dogs have it over humans when it comes to being able to see in low-light environments, and they simply don’t need as much light as we do to get around. Dogs can’t see in complete darkness, however. A strange noise coming from something he can’t see in the middle of the night could be startling. Most pets can be trained to sleep just fine with the lights out, but it would not hurt to leave a nightlight on for both your comfort and his.
Lullaby and Good Night
So, do dogs sleep with their eyes open? A happy, healthy, well-adjusted pooch or older canine companion is going to have some vivid dreams from time to time just like you and me. If their eyes are slightly open and they twitch or whine a bit, it’s really nothing to worry about because each of their eyes is protected by a nictitating membrane or third eyelid. If, however, they are having a seizure, their behavior is likely to be quite different. The better you familiarize yourself with your pup’s ordinary behavior, the easier it will be to recognize when something is wrong.