How your pet can help you sleep

The conventional wisdom on pets and sleep from the vantage point of sleep medical professionals typically addresses the negative consequences of animals in the bed or bedroom. The standard view holds animals are disruptive due to middle of the night needs, noises such as barking, or allergic responses, affecting breathing directly or triggering nasal congestion. No doubt, some individuals are better served by keeping pets out of the bedroom.

In this post, we will turn our attention toward the positive consequences of pets, cats and dogs specifically, sleeping in the bed or bedroom. Unquestionably, there are beneficial effects of animals that involve the realms of security and comfort, including elements that foster a more regimented sleep schedule.

Security is probably the number one issue when someone brings a dog into the bedroom. Regardless of whether the dog has its own bed on the floor or sleeps in the bed, the presence of the animal represents a very strong first line of defense against an intruder, both because the dog is likely to hear the intruder before the human and because the animal is more than capable of barking at or attacking a stranger who is trying to gain access to the home or bedroom. Unfortunately, many people feel unsafe in their homes, some due to real concerns about crime in their neighborhoods while others may simply be frail or vulnerable individuals whose fantasies about threats may be somewhat overblown. Regardless, a perceived threat is what it is and probably accounts for consistent if not increasing home ownership of guns. Dogs provide many individuals with a sense of security in the home, and for a fair proportion, they need the dog sleeping in their bed or bedroom.

Comfort is probably the second biggest reason for animals in the bed or bedroom, but this feeling could also overlap with the sense of security, so I do not know of research that distinguishes the two to know which one is the greater motivation. When comfort is more about improving psychological well-being in the face of loneliness in the bedroom, pets clearly offer companionship that proves sufficient to dissolve the sense of isolation. And, it is not always “man’s best friend” that serves this purpose. Cats in the bedroom or in the bed are a common occurrence. It is not unusual to hear comments from a sleep apnea patient about the cat being disturbed by the venting ports expelling air from the PAP mask.

Whether a dog or cat, the presence of a living, breathing animal in the bed or bedroom can trigger social interactions that further relieves isolation. Many pet owners talk to and with their animals. The content of the chatter may be whimsical or endearing as well as simple commands. Regardless of what is said, it is the speaking that creates the engagement, which overrides unpleasant feelings of being alone.

Animals may also provide comfort in the bed itself in at least two ways. For some individuals whose body metabolism appears to prevent them from staying warm enough, the animal’s heat may contribute to maintaining a higher temperature than would be possible without the pet. While many patients prefer cooler bedroom environments, there are many individuals, especially among the elderly or among those with circulatory problems who make special efforts to retain sufficient heat to be comfortable. An animal in the bed may provide this warmth. It is not at all unusual to hear of cat lovers whose pets sleep near, next to or at the top of the head, which clearly will improve heat retention, given how much heat loss occurs from the head at night.

The other way comfort is provided in the bed is through the positioning effects of the animal. The animal’s presence enhance security, psychological well-being, social interaction, or temperature effects, and when the animal rests against your back or curls up against your feet, the physical sensation feels very comforting in ways not dissimilar to the pleasurable sensation of spooning or being spooned in bed as you fall asleep with a larger mammal—the two-legged type—like your husband or wife. Same holds for when you awaken in the middle of the night and find yourself spooning to return to sleep. Feeling a cat or dog against your back or at your feet (probably the most common positions) or in some other location on the bed is a clear benefit for many animal lovers.

Last, animals are very capable of developing regular schedules that can be influenced by their owners or vice versa. Thus, a natural progression in owning a pet, particularly a dog, is to discover when the animal needs to relieve itself in the morning. If this time occurs at a reasonable hour to suit your schedule, then the pet will serve to anchor your wakeup time into a seven days a week routine. As we have talked in the past about cognitive-behavior therapy, one of the simplest techniques to treat insomnia is what we are describing here—anchoring your morning wakeup time. By getting up each morning at the same time, regardless how well you slept, the regularity of the morning wakeup eventually serves to promote more pronounced and more sustained sleepiness around your bedtime. 

For those inclined toward smaller, lower upkeep animals, a simple gold fish bowl or a more elaborate aquarium tank in the bedroom could jumpstart your imagery system. Using imagery to facilitate sleep onset or return to sleep in the middle of the night is a very powerful tool. Fish-gazing at night can prove very relaxing and conducive to sleep. Just remember to keep the cat out of the bedroom!


Barry Krakow MD

Author

Dr Krakow’s 27 years of sleep research have focused on the complex relationship between physiological and psychological sleep disorders. Dr Krakow currently operates private sleep medical center, Maimonides Sleep Arts & Sciences, Ltd., and serves as Classic SleepCare’s paid Medical Director.



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