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Why It’s So Wrong–But So Right–To Sleep With Your Pets

Every scientific study or sleep doctor you can find will tell you not to let your pets share your bed. Why we ignore all the evidence.

Why It’s So Wrong–But So Right–To Sleep With Your Pets

One night in 1998 my wife and I fell asleep, our very young puppy Mojo on the bed between us, before we had a chance to put her in her crate for the night. When we woke up the next morning and discovered there hadn’t been any disastrous consequences, a thought balloon bloomed over our heads: Hmm. Dog sleeps on bed. Snuggles with humans. Not bad. In fact, kind of nice.

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The reason I remember this is that it was the last good night’s sleep I ever had.

There are no hard numbers on how many pet owners “co-sleep” with their animals, but two studies presented at last year’s annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies confirm what any pet-loving idiot like myself can tell you: There are a lot of us, and we are walking around like zombies. One study surveyed 298 patients at a family practice clinic. About half reported sleeping with pets (more dogs than cats), and of those, nearly a third said they were awakened by their pets at least once per night. Sixty-three percent of respondents who shared a bed with a pet more than four nights a week reported poor sleep quality, as defined by the authoritative and exquisitely dull Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index. Another paper reported that 10% of pet owners were “annoyed” that their animals sometimes disturbed their sleep.

I’m no sleep scientist, but these figures seem low to me. Then again, I’m usually pretty foggy. I had my annual physical recently and my doctor asked me how I was sleeping. Not well, I told him. I suspected the dogs had something to do with that. “You have your dogs in the bed with you and your wife?” Yes, I told him. “What kind of dogs?” Labradors, I told him, hearing how very ridiculous it sounded as soon as I said it. He blinked for about 40 seconds, and then said incredulously: “LAB-radors? Lab-ra-DORS? Plural?” Yes, I said in a small meek voice, wishing I were dead.

Yes. Two Labradors: 11-year-old, 60-lb. Roxy and 4-year-old, 55-lb. Scout. (Mojo went to her reward several years ago. She was well rested.) Roxy and Scout are small as Labs go, but their lust for a good night’s sleep is outsized, and they don’t mind colonizing a disproportionately large swath of our bed to get it. The fact that it’s a king bed—I believe it to be the largest bed a civilian may legally buy—doesn’t alter the equation in the least. If you were to watch a time-lapse of a night in our bedroom what you would see is Roxy and Scout sprawled peacefully across the vast middle of our enormous bed, the area that would correspond to the Midwest on a map of the United States, while my wife Jennifer clings precariously to the Atlantic seaboard and I try to avoid plummeting into the Pacific.

The thing is, I know this is bad for me. The Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School reports cheerily that “a lack of adequate sleep can affect judgment, mood, ability to learn and retain information, and may increase the risk of serious accidents and injury. In the long term, chronic sleep deprivation may lead to a host of health problems including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even early mortality.” And yet night after night my wife and I—two adult people who train our dogs rigorously, insist on their good citizenship, and are otherwise firmly unsentimental about our status as pack leaders—decline to kick them out of our bed, and we wake up grouchy and stiff. So do many of the friends and acquaintances I informally polled for this story. One sleeps with his 85-lb. coonhound, and told me: “It destroys our backs. We’re taking steps to convince him to sleep elsewhere, with pretty weak results so far.” Another, who sleeps with a much smaller 25-lb. Wheaten, compares it to “trying to share our bed with a piano bench.” A third was at least willing to, in the name of God, do something about it. One recent night when her 2-year-old Great Dane jumped on the bed at 2 a.m., she “put up with it for about an hour. Then I got up and went to the couch.”

What’s going on here? My own theory is that it’s a long con. Dogs—hey, no disrespect—are the greatest human-manipulators in the history of the planet, which explains their enormous evolutionary success. Maybe they flatter us into believing they need us, they trust us to re-create for them the warmth and security of the litter, where they are instinctive co-sleepers, and this puffs us up and makes us feel godlike. When what they’re really after is what we’re all after: simple creature comfort. What sentient being wouldn’t rather sleep on a downy pillow-top than a floor, or even the most luxurious and expensive dog bed? (Which, for the record, my dogs also have.)

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Don’t misunderstand. I don’t discount the psychological satisfaction of curling up next to a slumbering dog or, I guess, cat. (Or the literal warmth of it: Our pets’ body temperatures run three to six degrees warmer than our own.) Psychologist Stanley Coren cites speculation among anthropologists that human-animal co-sleeping may even be encoded in our DNA, or theirs. And honestly, it’s hard to ignore the elemental comfort of Roxy’s muffled snores close by, or the whispery exhalation of Scout’s breath in my ear as I’m falling asleep, sounds that say, The day is done and the pack is together, and safe. Who am I to buck DNA? Even if later tonight, along about 3 a.m. when I’m feeling less broad-minded about the whole thing and I give Scout a vicious shove that doesn’t even wake her up—even if, even then, I sleepily but deliberately act against my own physiological best interests and allow her to stay right where she is, as I drift inexorably toward the very edge of the mattress. Again.

That sense of connection must be some powerful stuff. We must crave it very badly. Maybe the greatest trick the devil ever pulled wasn’t convincing the world he doesn’t exist; maybe it was convincing us to trade our own most basic bodily need, the need for restorative sleep, for a fleeting bit of animal comfort in the night.