A graduate student recently sent me the following question:
"I have always shared my bed with my English Cocker Spaniel, Elsapeth. I feel comfortable with her and I think that it improves the quality of my sleep. For that reason, I was surprised (and upset) when my fiancé, who is doing his medical internship at VGH [Vancouver General Hospital], told me that the accepted opinion in the medical community is that a dog should not be allowed to sleep on the bed with a person, and probably should not even be allowed to sleep in the same room. Can you point me to some actual research on this issue?"
The timing of her question turned out to be serendipitous: A new study in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings deals specifically with this topic.
Several surveys have shown that roughly 60 percent of all dog owners allow their dogs to sleep on their bed with them. Dog owners give a variety of reasons for sharing beds with their canine companions, one of the most common being that dogs are warm — it just feels good to snuggle up to a dog on a cold night. In fact, dogs have a body temperature three to six degrees higher than our own, making them efficient bed warmers. The term "three dog night" comes from the Canadian maritime provinces, where it was standard practice to take your dog (or dogs) to bed with you on a cold night to help keep you warm.
Dogs also seem to help us relax. A dog's rhythmic breathing, when one lies next to you, can help lull you to sleep. In addition, being near a dog increases our flow of oxytocin, a hormone associated with affection and happiness.
A third reason for sleeping with a dog is that that they can make us feel safe. Many of us feel somewhat vulnerable when we lie in bed, alone and in the dark. The presence of a dog, regardless of its size, can give us a sense of protection.
The major reason medical practitioners don't want you to sleep with your dog is that they may disturb a good night's rest. In a survey, 53 percent of pet owners reported that their dogs tend to wake them at least once on any given night. Since sleep deprivation, no matter its cause, can have negative physical and mental effects, the conservative recommendation from the medical community has been to simply eliminate this source of sleep disturbance by removing the dog from your bed.
But previous sleep disturbance data did not directly measure the impact of sleeping beside your canine. Since it was not known whether canine-related sleep disturbance has a major or minor effect on the total amount and quality of sleep, a research team from the Mayo Clinic, headed by Salma Patel, decided to look into the question.
These investigators used actimeters (movement detectors), which were strapped onto both humans and dogs. The investigative team used these devices to monitor sleeping patterns over a seven-day period. Specifically they looked at sleep efficiency, which is measured by comparing the amount of time you spend actually sleeping to the amount of time you are in bed overall. A sleep efficiency of 80 percent or more is considered to be sufficient. The study found that when sleeping with a dog in the bedroom — but not on the bed — people maintained an 83 percent sleep efficiency, which meets those satisfactory standards. Allowing the dog to sleep on the bed caused only a minor drop in sleep efficiency, to an average slightly above the acceptable 80 percent mark. This is despite the fact that people with a dog in their bed did, in fact, wake up more frequently throughout the night compared to those whose dog slept elsewhere.
The previous research was correct in demonstrating that people sharing their bed with a dog did experience some sleep disturbance. However, in terms of the total amount of sleep obtained each night, the effects were negligible.
It is interesting to note that having a human companion next to you in bed did not cause similar sleep disturbances. People who slept two-in-a-bed actually had better sleep efficiency than those who slept alone. This finding may have implications for people who find that their human partner objects to the idea of sharing their sleeping accommodations with a dog. This is important, since studies show that 13 percent of couples admit to having disagreements on whether their dog should be in bed with them or not.
The fact that a human partner and a canine partner might not get along well in bed can be confirmed by none other than Napoleon Bonaparte. When he married Josephine, he learned that her Pug, Fortune, always slept with her. On their wedding night, Napoleon was surprised to find that Josephine insisted that the dog remain on the bed as usual. Later that evening, when the newlyweds were flagrante delicto, Fortune took offense at what was going on between his mistress and the general and demonstrated this by biting the French leader on his thigh. Napoleon was not amused, and he bore a scar — and a grudge against the Pug — for the rest of his life.
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Salma I. Patel, Bernie W. Miller, Heidi E. Kosiorek, James M. Parish, Philip J. Lyng, and Lois E. Krahn, (2017). The effect of dogs on human sleep in the home sleep environment. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 92 (9), 1368-1372.