Is it okay to let your cat or dog cuddle up with you at night? Opinions are passionate on both sides of the bed.
Among early human cultures, dogs served as hunters, guards, and companions. So said the narration of a diorama at a natural history museum my family visited recently. The exhibit also pointed out another dog gift to us since ancient times: extra warmth on cold nights.
Sleeping with pets is not a new idea. But it’s a touchy subject that sets off strong feelings. How and with whom we spend the restful third of our lives involves highly personal and complex choices. Questions of comfort, safety, cleanliness, restfulness, and sometimes health all come up when we get ourselves and our pets ready for bed.
Some of us find cuddling up with a dog or cat at night to be a comfort. Others consider a pet’s presence in bed no more than a nuisance. For many of us, it’s a combination of both, and we do our best to make an uneasy peace with the pets that want to be in our beds.
According to a 1996 survey of more than 1,000 American pet owners, more than half of all cats and a third of all dogs regularly sleep on their owners, beds. Nearly another third of pet dogs sleep beside or under the bed, as do a tenth of the cats. Twelve percent of dog owners create a special bed for their dogs, while half as many cat owners do, according to the American Animal Hospital Assn., headquartered in Denver.
What the statistics don’t tell is how strongly most people feel about where their pets sleep. Often people who share their bed with a pet can’t imagine sleeping any other way. And the same goes for those who prefer canine- and feline-free sleeping quarters.
It pays to be thoughtful about sleeping arrangements right from the start of your life with a new pet. Dogs and cats are creatures of habit, and sleeping habits can be especially difficult to break. Before you invite your sweet little puppy to curl up on your quilt, think carefully about how welcome he’ll be in that spot as an adult dog. Letting sleeping dogs lie where they will is not the best way to decide where your dog should sleep. As alpha male or female in your pup’s life, it’s up to you to figure out the best sleeping arrangement and make it happen.
Where Does Your Cat Nap?
Cats can be hard to convince. They don’t have that follow-the-leader instinct, so they tend to make their own choices and can be most creative when they set out to thwart ours.
In our house, nothing sets off a nighttime tiff between my two sons as easily as the cats’ sleep choices. They both do their best to entice our younger cat, Nala, to their bed. The one not chosen feels left out. I truly believe Nala tries to please both of them: There are nights when she starts in one bed and ends up in another – and I wake up to hear the newly chosen bragging to his brother about his victory.
When I was growing up the rules were simpler. We didn’t have cats and our dog always had her own bed, which was separated from our bedrooms by a gate. The summer I stayed with a cousin whose dog slept with her, I was amazed and amused by the possibility of getting tucked in with our dog – but my mother was not.
In many households today, pets are considered more a part of the family than they were a generation ago. That means more dogs and cats enjoy the run of the house and more find their way to their humans’ bedrooms come nightfall.
But whether these changes have served the pets’ best interest is a controversial question. “An animal’s life is not improved by its coming into the bedroom at night,” says Hugh Tebault, president of the Latham Foundation for the Promotion of Humane Education, in Alameda, Calif. Tebault, who has spent years exploring the benefits of human-animal bonding, says he doesn’t approve of sleeping with pets. In his home, the dog interacts with people in the family room and the backyard. Bedrooms are strictly off-limits.
Roll Over, Rover!
At the other end of the spectrum is a friend of mine who abandons her bed to her two large poodles on warm nights – she sleeps in the guest room. She likes having them close by on cold winter nights. Although the arrangement holds less appeal come summer, their habit would be hard to break. It’s easier for my friend to abandon ship.
Being clear about your boundaries is critical to sleeping happily among pets. My sister, for instance, doesn’t mind it when her dogs climb up in the bed with her. But her pillow is for her head alone. Her dogs have accepted this rule – at least as long as she’s there to enforce it. But when she gets up during the night, she often comes back to find her place taken.
The trickiest boundaries to maintain, in fact, are those on top of the bed itself. Convincing your dogs or cats to confine themselves to the foot of the bed is far more challenging than keeping them off completely. Like the quintessential bed hog, dogs and cats can often commandeer a surprising amount of mattress space – sometimes expanding their territory an inch at a time through the course of the night.
Brush Before You Go to Bed
Of course, you need to pay extra attention to the health and grooming of any animal that sleeps close by. You don’t want to invite fleas or other parasites into your bed. Extra brushing can help keep down the amount of fur pets leave behind.
For some people, sleeping with pets involves risks that clearly outweigh any benefits. People with allergies, for instance, are advised to keep furry friends out of their bedroom at all times. Small children and large pets are also a risky combination, although the oft-repeated danger of smothering may be less likely than being inadvertently scratched.
Behaviorally, there may also be a downside to sharing a bed with your pet. A veterinarian recently advised a friend of mine to put her dog out of the bedroom because it was becoming too attached to her and was acting out its loneliness with destructive behavior whenever she left the house.
Whatever your choices, the best thing you can do for yourself and your pets is to be consistent. When the rules are clear, everybody sleeps easier. That may mean closing the door to the cat or crating the dog with his bed till he gets the idea.
As for me, I was converted to the sleeps- with-pets category by a lovely cat named Gypsy that used to turn up unobtrusively by my feet every morning. These days, I always leave a space by my pillow for one of our cats, which invariably spends part of the night there. I certainly don’t require a furry friend’s presence for physical warmth as our early ancestors did, but there certainly is something peaceful and appealing about a cat’s presence. I can contend with the few shed hairs.