I remember with great amusement the first date I ever went on with Michael, the man who is now my husband. As our lunch conversation turned to animals, I can still recall his unsteady forkful of shrimp linguini. There it quivered, suspended in mid-air as he gazed at me in mild horror. “You mean,” he intoned with all the dubious dismay of a non-pet parent, “you actually let your pets sleep on the bed with you?”
Flash forward about a decade, and said pets are routinely huddled against my husband’s head or draped across his stomach as he relaxes in a bear-like slumber. In our household, the “pets on the bed” dispute has long been, well… put to rest. And the animals definitely won, paws down.
In other corners of the pet-loving universe, this debate continues to rage on. After all, we humans spend roughly one-third of our lives in bed. Is it wise to have our pets in such close and constant proximity?
Fellow pet parents report that they receive mixed reviews when revealing the truth about sharing the comforter with their kitty or canine companions. I myself have been asked why I’m willing to wager eight hours of uninterrupted shut-eye for a cranky Cockapoo with anxiety issues. I’ve also been challenged ad nauseam (pun intended) about the number of germs cavorting across various, furry body parts.
It would seem that this polarizing issue basically boils down to two primary concerns: 1) the well-being of the pet parent, and 2) the well-being of the companion animal. Both perspectives can be assessed from a nearly endless array of angles—behavioral, social, and emotional. To explore the subject further, I sought some expert insights. Here is what I found out:
First up, I investigated the cleanliness quotient of the average bed. Sensitive readers may want to skip over this part, because evidently most beds—whether inhabited by pets or not—are virtually teeming with hungry, microscopic dust mites.
Dander and exfoliated skin from humans (and, yes, pets) make up the dust mite’s snack of choice. Most mattresses host anywhere from 100,000 to 8 million of these spider-like little varmints, according to Wisconsin-based indoor air specialist Dan Schilling. They’re known for aggravating allergies and asthma, and, regrettably, they get around. Studies estimate that up to ten percent of the total weight of each two-year-old pillow is a combination of (gulp) dead dust mites and their waste.
So as we all take a collective moment to Google “new mattress and pillow sales,” let’s come to terms with the fact that—animals or no animals—our beds aren’t necessarily as clean as we may have imagined.
Ashley B. Rudnick, Psy.D, a behavioral sleep specialist at The Center for Sleep Medicine in Naperville, feels that pets sleeping on the bed are rarely the exclusive, direct cause of insomnia. “Certainly, a patient who presents with existing sleep issues may struggle with pets who move around a lot, exhibit marked anxiety, or want to play fetch during the night,” she says. “But it’s also important to recognize that the mere proximity of a pet can represent a learned association that’s enormously soothing when it’s time to settle down for sleep.” Rudnick notes that rather than setting a hard and fast rule, she and her colleagues always carefully evaluate this issue with each patient on a contextual, case-by-case basis.
Simply petting and reassuring a companion animal can be tremendously comforting to humans, says Char Sandberg, a licensed clinical professional counselor at Wheaton-based Meier Clinics. “Though I haven’t directly addressed this issue from a clinical perspective, people can feel an extremely strong, empathetic connection with their pets,” Sandberg says. “In fact, caring for a pet is often an extension of our own self-care—so pet parents may derive a very positive, calming correlation from having their pet on the bed each night.”
Laura Sweet, DVM, a veterinarian at VCA Aurora Animal Hospital, explains that when an animal is part of a pack, the alpha always sleeps at the highest point to watch over other pack members. “For pets who tend toward dominance or aggressive guarding,” she cautions, “allowing access to your bed may reinforce the perception that they’re pack leaders.” (If you’re facing this dilemma see “Bed Boundaries.”)
Sweet stresses that dogs and cats can carry fleas, infections, and parasites such as giardia that may be transmitted to humans. “But that’s not necessarily a reason to ban pets from your sleeping area entirely,” she adds. “So long as each pet is on a flea/tick/heartworm preventative, is screened for intestinal parasites at least once per year, and has regular vet visits, it’s not problematic to have them sleeping on the bed.” Sweet notes that wiping down a pet’s paws and fur before retiring for the night can be beneficial, and that caregivers with compromised immunity issues may want to obtain medical advice.
“To help establish and reinforce boundaries, I suggest that pets be permitted on the bed by invitation only,” says Sara Swan, owner of Narnia Pet Behavior & Training in Plainfield. Swan encourages pet parents to set up an alternate sleeping area for each pet, then create word cues to let the pet know when it’s okay to get up—or time to lie down. “It’s best to choose special commands not used for anything else,” Swan says. One could use “snuggle” or “snooze,” for example, to invite a dog onto the bed. If he begins to act up, using a time-out command like “floor” reminds him that sleeping on the bed is a privilege, not an entitlement. “Make this a gradual learning game,” she adds,“so your pet begins to understand your expectations.”
Still not certain about your own “pets on the bed” stance? Assess the pros and cons—and then maybe, just sleep on it.