Sleeping with Pets: The Pros, the Cons, and the Latest Science on how Your Mutt can Help Your Sleep

Sleeping with pets: the pros, the cons, and the latest science on how your mutt can help your sleep

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Does sleeping with my pet hurt my sleep? This is one of those perennial questions I get asked all the time. As I’ve written about before, we have a houseful of much-loved pets in our family, and our dog and cat all sleep with my wife and me (though lately the cat seems to like my daughter!). On any given night, we’re joined by Hugo the French Bulldog and Monty the Devin Rex cat. 

A lot of us like to sleep with our four-legged family members. A YouGov survey from about a year ago found that 66% of Americans sleep with their pets. Co-sleeping with animals we love like family can bring a lot of comfort and soothing at night. 

But how does sleeping with our pets affect our sleep? 

For a long time, it was assumed that sleeping with animals was counterproductive and disruptive to sound sleep. But the science on sleeping with pets tells a different story. 

If you’re a pet bed sharer like my wife and I are, you’ll be happy to know that there is a growing body research showing positive results and benefits from sleeping with pets, including among people with sleep disorders and medical conditions, such as chronic pain, that affect sleep. 

There’s also increasing interest among sleep professionals in the use of service animals and family pets to help treat sleep disorders, improve sleep therapies (such as CPAP use), and provide relief from parasomnias, including nightmares. I love this thinking and approach, and I thought we’d take a closer look today at the ideas behind it, and the science of co-sleeping with pets. 

There’s a psychological boost that comes from pet ownership

The emotional bond that we have with our pets has demonstrated benefits for psychological well being, and those benefits may indirectly influence our sleep for the better. Research shows that pet owners say their family animals contribute to better moods, less depression, a greater sense of calm, a stronger sense of purpose, and distraction from worry about their health concerns, as well as a deep sense of companionship and emotional bond. Reduced loneliness is another of the important benefits of owning, for many people, sharing a bed with a pet. (I’ve written about the impact of loneliness on sleep, and how it can often be overlooked as a driver of sleep problems.) 

Pets can increase our physical activity and daily motivation

Research shows that pet owners tend to move more and get more physical activity than non-pet owners, across a broad range of ages, from young adults to older adults. A 2019 study in older adults (the average age of participants was 68 years), found higher levels of physical activity and weekly exercise, lower body mass index, less pain, better general health, better physical and social functioning, higher levels of vitality, and greater emotional well being in the older adults who owned dogs than in non-dog owners. This study also found the dog owners slept longer at night than non-dog owners. 

Pet owners in a number of research studies report feeling higher levels of motivation, and a stronger connection and adherence to daily schedules. Consistency in our daily routines, particularly consistency in our daily bedtimes and wake times, is an important contributor to regular, restful sleep—and, as I recently discussed, to our mood and emotional health

How do pets in our beds affect sleep quality? 

There’s not a simple, one-size-fits-all answer to this question. The scientific research that exists shows that in some cases, there’s no loss to sleep quality, or a small reduction in sleep quality. 

A study from 2017 that used wearable devices to track owners’ and animals’ sleep found that people who slept with their dogs maintained a reasonable sleep efficiency—that’s an assessment of sleep quality, measured by how much time you spend actually sleeping compared to the overall time you spend in bed. The humans in this study averaged a sleep efficiency of 81%, which is above the important 80% threshold that is considered satisfactory. (The dogs in the study slept even better, with a sleep efficiency of 85%! Maybe we need a few sleep tips from Fido!) 

This study was conducted in a group of pet owners who had normal sleep patterns. In a study of people with sleep disorders, researchers found that roughly half of those who slept with their pets reported feeling benefits to sleep, or considered their pets unobtrusive to their nightly rest. 

Other research shows that sleeping with pets can be a source of disruption to sleep quality. Some research reports that pets’ snoring is a common source of sleep disruption for their owners. Differences in the sleep-wake cycles between pets and humans, and mis-aligned nighttime body temperatures between animals and humans have also been attributed to sleep disruptions in people who share a bed with their pets. Dogs’ sensitivity and responsiveness to noise even when in sleep mode—say, when your pup suddenly starts barking at a garbage can toppling outside in the middle of the night–can pose challenges for their co-sleeping humans nightly rest, according to research. A recent study found that sleeping with dogs significantly increased people’s movements during the night—but the study also found that people who slept with their dogs rarely reported their sleep being disrupted. 

The choice to sleep with a pet is a very personal and individual one. If you’re not sleeping with a pet now, but think you may benefit from it, you can test it a few nights and see how it goes for both you and your pet.  I recommend to my patients that they test out sleeping with their pets only for a short period of time, no more than a couple of nights, so they don’t condition their pets to sleep with them before they decide whether it’s something that’s right for them. Also, you will want to come up with a few “rules of the room” for your furry friend. Here are some things to think about:

  • Will they sleep under the covers? 
  • Who wants them in bed? (animals prefer to generally sleep in packs, so they will snuggle in)
  • Do your pets snore? I have a French Bulldog . . . need I say more?
  • Where on the bed will they sleep?

Can our animals help with sleep apnea and other sleep disorders? 

That’s the topic of this fascinating paper I read recently, which describes how trained service animals, emotional support animals, and family pets may be a therapeutic resource for people with sleep disorders including OSA, narcolepsy, nightmares and other parasomnias, such as sleep walking. This excellent paper was written by Dr. Mary Rose from Baylor University, an old friend. 

As the paper indicates, pets (both trained animals and family pets) are already being used to help with these kinds of sleep problems. And there are dogs being trained specifically to help owners with sleep issues. This is an under-studied, under-tracked, under-regulated, and under-documented area of sleep therapy. But what we do know is pretty fascinating and promising as an emerging avenue of assistance for people with sleep disorders. 

Obstructive sleep apnea. There are documented cases of dogs trained to gently alert CPAP users when their masks slip off during the night, helping people with OSA to improve the consistency and duration of their nightly CPAP use. Optimizing adherence to nightly CPAP use is critical to getting the greatest benefit from this therapy, which is the first-line treatment for OSA. In the case study this paper highlights, the OSA patient experienced discomfort and claustrophobia when wearing her CPAP mask, and frequently removed the mask unconsciously throughout the night. Medication and other treatments were not effective in helping her become comfortable wearing the mask throughout her nightly rest. The patient’s dog was trained to place a paw on her mask when she began to remove it, in order to keep it in place, without waking the patient from her sleep. The dog was also trained to alert the patient when she had removed the mask.

Parasomnias. This same patient with OSA also experienced parasomnias, including nightmares, sleep walking and aggression when her roommates attempted to help her return to bed. She suffered injuries, including a fractured leg, during her sleep walking episodes. Medication and psychological therapy were not effective in alleviating her disruptive and dangerous parasomnias. The patient’s dog was trained to successfully redirect her and block her ability to leave her bedroom when she rose from bed to sleepwalk. 

Parasomnias, including sleep walking, sleep terrors, and REM sleep behavior disorder (which involves sleepers act out physically during dreams) pose risk for the sleeper, their bed partners and housemates, and co-sleeping pets. As the paper’s author notes, there have been cases where pets have been injured while sleeping with a person experiencing these types of parasomnias. Training animals to support and protect their human companions during disruptive parasomnias, to deliver both physical protection and emotional relief and support, seems to have tremendous potential as a non-pharmaceutical therapy. Formal and specific training here is essential, to ensure the safety of both people and animals. 

Narcolepsy. I learned in reading this paper that there are organizations now training narcolepsy service dogs. Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder that impairs the brain’s ability to control sleep-wake cycles. People with narcolepsy often experience highly disrupted, deeply un-refreshing nighttime sleep. Narcolepsy can also significantly affect daily waking functioning. People with narcolepsy can fall asleep suddenly and uncontrollably while being active—these episodes are often referred to as “sleep attacks.” They also can experience extreme fatigue, nightmares, and emotional stress. These symptoms can create challenges for social and emotional health and functioning, as well as risks for physical injury. 

Dogs are trained to identify signs of oncoming sleep attacks and give advance warning to patients, and also are trained to use their bodies to help protect patients from falling and injuring themselves. 

Nightmares. Nightmares are a complex sleep phenomenon, often arising from a combination of causes and factors. Persistent or chronic nightmares are closely linked to PTSD and anxiety disorders. Service animals are being trained, including by the US Veterans Affairs Medical Centers system, to reduce the impact and harm of PTSD related nightmares. Animals are trained to wake the dreaming patient and comfort them. There’s a truly unique therapeutic role here that trained animals can play, in responding in the moment to interrupt a nightmare at the appropriate time, before patient becomes too highly agitated, distressed, and aroused. Service animals can provide comfort, security, relief from anxiety in the wake of a nightmare. And they can help patients lower their stress, and reduce the excessive arousal, vigilance, and stress that are associated with PTSD and with nightmares themselves. Fear of sleeping and returning to painful, frightening dreams keeps people from being able to fall asleep, and it makes all kinds of sense that a companion animal could be tremendously helpful in reducing this fear and avoidance of sleep that so often accompanies nightmares. 

As an animal lover and a sleep clinician, I’m heartened and excited by the prospect of this form of therapy for treating sleep disorders. Our pets enrich our lives in so many ways, including enhancing our sleep experiences, under the right and safe conditions for both humans and the pets we love.  

Sweet Dreams, 

Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM

The Sleep Doctor™

www.thesleepdoctor.com

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Michael Breus, Ph.D - The Sleep Doctor is a Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a Fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and one of only 168 psychologists to pass the Sleep Medical Specialty Board without going to medical school. Dr. Breus is a sought after lecturer and his knowledge is shared daily in major national media worldwide including Today, Dr. Oz, Oprah, and for fourteen years as the sleep expert on WebMD. Dr. Breus is the bestselling author of The Power of When, The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan and Good Night!