All kinds of strange things show up in dreams: aliens, ninjas, gorgeous men on white horses. Though we all interpret these dream elements differently, and though Freud himself wrote that the manifest content of dreams (what we see) corresponds to their latent content (what we feel) in ways that only the dreamer herself can understand (with help from her psychoanalyst, of course), there are some symbolic connections that many dreamers share. Animals, for example, occur commonly in dreams and usually represent situations and emotions present in waking life.
Tony Crisp, a dream-interpretation and inner-life guru and author of the online Dream Dictionary at DreamHawk.com, writes that animals in dreams give insight into “the instinctive, spontaneous, and natural in you.”
If the animal in a dream is struggling to survive, Crisp urges dreamers to assess how well they are “surviving” in their own lives. He writes that our everyday environments force all of us to confront threats and challenges to our well-being; “every cell” in us strives to survive and achieve balance amid technological stressors, a too-hasty pace of life, and self-destructive personal habits. Understanding what upsets our own balance, Crisp believes, will help us to regain it and succeed in the modern world.
Another question Crisp encourages dreamers to ask themselves is, “Is the animal domesticated or wild?” Tame animals represent internal urges that we socialize or sublimate, whereas feral beasts denote urges that conflict with our conscious actions and what society expects from us. Crisp believes it’s important to recognize which particular desires our dream animals embody and to question whether our untamed impulses are healthy or not.
Dream Symbols Straight from the Horse’s Mouth
Though Crisp and many other dream experts don’t see specific types of animals as significant to dream interpretation, others view the creatures that appear in our nocturnal imaginings as universally representative of feelings and situations in waking life. DreamMoods.com lists all of these symbolic animals alphabetically, the most common (according to Crisp) being dogs, cats, snakes, and horses.
Dogs may represent either neglected skills or intuition, loyalty, generosity, protection, and fidelity. If the dog growls fiercely and bares its teeth, those actions may symbolize the dreamer’s inner conflict or betrayal by another (being treated like a dog). A dog that wags its tail indicates pleasure derived from a new social connection, and a dog that barks represents a demanding person (perhaps the dreamer herself). A dead or dying dog often appears in conjunction with the loss of a loved one, or signals that the dreamer has been ignoring her natural instincts in her waking life. If the dog bites her on the leg, her life may be out of balance in at least one area, or she may feel that someone close to her is disloyal.
Cats are independent, intuitive, and powerful. They may also stand for deceit and treachery, as cats are wily creatures and a “catty” woman is a malicious and vengeful one. According to lore, cats represent female sexuality. A biting cat is a symbol of the devouring female, vagina dentata. A cat without a tail signifies a loss of autonomy. A black cat means bad luck, and a white cat is a sign of a difficult time in one’s life, either present or future.
Snakes in dreams, according to internationally recognized dream-analysis expert Gillian Holloway, PhD, signify the “psychic awareness of the transition from this life to the next.” Many cultures link snakes to life, death, and rebirth, and Carl Jung, the father of analytical psychology, also acknowledges:
“ … perhaps the commonest dream symbol of transcendence is the snake, as represented by the therapeutic symbol of the Roman god of medicine Aeseulapius, which has survived to modern times as a sign of the medical profession. This was originally a nonpoisonous tree snake; as we see it, coiled around the staff of the healing god, it seems to embody a kind of mediation between earth and heaven.”
Snakes are also phallic symbols, embodying a dark, sinister sexuality, argues Holloway, who connects snake bites in dreams to the dreamer’s fear of male penetration.
Horses, on the other hand, are more positive phallic symbols; they denote virility and sexual prowess. Dreaming of a black horse or a herd of wild horses may be a sign of attraction to wild, untamed sexuality. By the same token, a white, tethered, or armored horse represents chastity. If the horse is dead, it may be because the dreamer feels a loss of power, impotence. And if the dreamer is riding a horse, well …
Keeping the Dream Alive
Whether or not you agree with the meanings associated with these dream animals or think that they apply to you specifically, creatures of all species are common elements in our nightly visions and evoke our inner, untamed, primal selves. By paying close attention to these animals and their behavior in our dreams, we may better understand ourselves and our waking lives.