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Should you sleep with your pet?

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Kelly Baron, PhD

I have a PhD in Clinical/Health Psychology. My current position is faculty at Northwestern University and associate director of the Comprehensive Insomnia Clinic at Northwestern Medical Faculty Foundation

There's no doubt that people love their animals! It's estimated that 63 million households contain pets! 

One survey from a few years ago estimated that Americans 73 million dogs, 90 million cats, 139 million freshwater fish, 9 million saltwater fish, 16 million birds, 18 million small animals and 11 million reptiles.

There isn't a scientific survey about this to my knowledge but several surveys published on the web report that between 30 and 60% of Americans prefer to sleep with their pet (I'm assuming these are not the fish or reptile owners).

TheGiantVermins dog.jpg

Photo courtesy of flickr user TheGiantVermin's



It's not something I ask my patients regularly, but sometimes I feel like I should!  Sometimes 3 sessions into insomnia treatment I learn of the 4 dogs, 3 cats, and 2 children climbing in and out of bed all night and I realize an environmental intervention is needed!

My not so secret confession is that until very recently, I was one those people with animals in my bed. For the past 10 years, my cat Caesar snuggled up on my side of the bed with me every night while his brother Brutus liked to sleep elsewhere.

Unfortunately, about a month ago, we lost Caesar to cancer, which left me wondering about whether my sleep would be better or worse without my furry friend. Also, with Caesar out of the way, Brutus (the other and larger cat) was interested in coming in the bedroom more often.  Should I discourage Brutus and make the bedroom a cat free zone?

Clinically- I almost never suggest my patients to ban their furry children from the bedroom.  Most would rather deal with the consequences than kick out their beloved buddy from bed.

But, here are some considerations:
1.    Allergies- If you have allergies or asthma- do you really want to sleep in a pile of animal hair?
2.    Daytime fatigue, poor sleep quality- If you're trying to improve your sleep quality, having a 100 lb dog step all over you all night probably isn't helping
3.    Intimacy- Is it good for your relationship to have animals in the bed? Or is a not needed distraction?
4.    Stimulus control- in insomnia treatment, one of the things we often suggest is using the bed for sleep and intimacy only. Snuggling with your dog or cat is not one of those activities so get your snuggling in on the couch!
5.    Sleepwalking- interestingly, things in the environment that cause partial awakenings can trigger sleepwalking. That's why in some cases we recommend keeping the animals out of the bedroom.

So, what did I decide? I ended up being pretty laissez-faire about the whole thing. Brutus comes and goes. He's actually been pretty noisy at night, which makes me wonder if he is lonely too. If I close my door, I have to deal with incessant meowing and howling so I give in and let him in (thereby reinforcing his behavior, sigh).

I am back to dealing with having my feet bit, face poked, and occasional waking by lovely hairball, but I guess I am willing to deal with it for the joy of pet ownership!
 

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