Abcarian: Should you sleep with your pet? It depends


Do you sleep with animals?

No, I don’t mean people who, you know, do wild and crazy things in bed.

I am talking about actual animals: dogs, cats, bunnies, guinea pigs and maybe — bear with me — Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs.

Stipple-style portrait illustration of Robin Abcarian

Opinion Columnist

Robin Abcarian

Every few years, new research reveals that human-animal co-sleeping is either a) medically fraught; b) emotionally fulfilling; or c) a confirmation of your mother’s fears that she will never have grandchildren, because what man in his right mind is going to share a bed with you and your damn Bernedoodle?

As someone who has always had boundary issues with my pets, it never occurred to me not to allow them into my bed. My Poppy is a nearly 3-year-old golden retriever, and when I tell you that I sleep with her, what I really mean is that she deigns to sleep with me.

Most nights she starts out on the hardwood floor and ends up at the foot of my bed. Sometimes, in the morning, I flip around so my head is at the foot of the bed and try to spoon with her. At 80 pounds, she is a solid and satisfying creature to wrap my arms around. She only tolerates this contact as long as I rub her belly. Otherwise, like my ex-husband, she’s not super cuddly.

I do, however, sleep better knowing that Poppy is nearby. Her barking warns me of squirrels messing around outside and malevolent tree limbs that brush against my windows in a storm. If an intruder were ever to break in at night, Poppy’s enthusiastic greeting and her habit of flopping onto her back to demand a belly rub might trip him and buy me a few minutes to call 911.

It’s surprising how much time has been spent studying what happens when humans sleep with pets.

Two primary areas draw the interest of researchers: the medical risks involved in bringing a four-legged creature into bed, and the effect that the practice has on our sleep.

Medical downsides can be considerable, if rare.

Pets can bring dust and pollen into bed, which may aggravate allergies and asthma. In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a disturbing paper, “Zoonoses in the Bedroom,” by two California doctors who surveyed medical literature. (Zoonoses are diseases that animals spread to people.) They compiled a medical encyclopedia’s worth of icky pathogens that have infected people, albeit rarely.

What I learned from reading this disturbing paper is that it’s probably better not to let your pets lick your mouth or any tear in your skin. But mostly, at least in the U.S., sleeping with pets won’t make you sick as long as your pet is healthy, clean and properly treated for fleas and ticks.

As far as I can tell, no one has studied whether it’s dangerous for the pets to sleep with humans. But I can tell you from experience that things did not turn out well for the small guinea pig my little sister brought into her bed and rolled onto in her sleep when we were kids.

As for the impact on sleep quality, there is almost too much research to take in, and much of it is contradictory.

In the 2011 paper “Human-Animal Co-Sleeping: An Actigraphy-Based Assessment of Dogs’ Impacts on Women’s Nighttime Movements,” researchers found that when dogs move around in bed, they cause people to move around in bed, but that people “rarely” reported that their dogs disrupted their sleep.

In 2021, researchers at the Pediatric Public Health Psychology Lab at Montreal’s Concordia University found that about a third of pet-owning children sleep with their pets, and that the children’s sleep does not seem to be adversely impacted.

A variation on that theme was explored the same year in Australia, where researchers looked at the sleep quality of adolescents who slumber with their pets and discovered that pets didn’t have much of an effect because adolescents generally don’t sleep well in the first place.

Last year, the scientific clearinghouse that publishes the journal Human-Animal Interactions released the results of an American study examining whether there was a correlation between pet ownership, sleep quality and sleep disorders. Multivariable logistic regression models — ahem — looked at sleep-quality issues including snoring, snorting, trouble falling or staying asleep, waking up midsleep or too early, feeling unrested, and leg jerks and cramps, among other things.

“Our results,” wrote the researchers, “indicated that having a dog was associated with greater odds of having a sleep disorder and having trouble sleeping. Having a cat was associated with greater odds of having leg jerks.” (I reached out to one of that paper’s authors to get some clarity on “leg jerks,” but did not hear back by deadline.)

A few years ago, when I still owned two cats, I do not recall my legs jerking during sleep. I do recall, however, that Camille frequently stood on my chest staring at me like a malevolent vulture as I slept, and Patches often curled up on my pillow and licked my hair.

Some professionals advise just keeping pets out of the bedroom at night altogether. Are they serious? Just try locking your codependent pet out for the night. See how well you sleep with a furry bundle howling in the hallway or hurling itself at your door.

@robinkabcarian





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