Should you sleep with your dog?

Pets and people.
Nov. 8 2004 10:45 AM

Go Ahead, Sleep With Your Dog

And, no, we don't mean it that way.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

I sleep with my pets. For more than 20 years, cats have shared my bed. My late cat, Shlomo, used to spend the night perched on top of my head, and I found this purring beret deeply comforting. When I just had cats, it never occurred to me that having pets in the bed was anything more than a harmless personal preference. Then I got a beagle and discovered the issue of allowing your dog to sleep with you is deeply fraught. Supposedly, bed privileges destroy the owner's standing as pack leader. Allowing a dog in the bed, I learned, is a critical dog-rearing error, like giving brandy to quiet a cranky baby and ending up with an alcoholic teenager.

Emily Yoffe Emily Yoffe

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

The dogma was everywhere. A recent Washington Post interview with a dog trainer stated that a dog in bed is "a sign the dog is completely in charge. Get the dog off your bed. It can make a bigger difference than anyone can imagine." How To Be Your Dog's Best Friend, the dog obedience manual by the Monks of New Skete, advises letting the dog sleep on the floor in your bedroom, but never in your bed. A dog trying to get too intimate should receive "slapped paws and a shove off"—not wholly surprising advice from celibate trainers.

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Despite this, my beagle, Sasha, got the opportunity to settle in for the night when my husband declared he was evicting from the bed our two current cats, all 36 pounds of them. He explained, "In the middle of the night they run up and down my body, then they sit on my chest and crush it."

Since I am a light sleeper, I told my husband it was hard to believe his description of our cats' ramblings. Ever the considerate wife, I suggested he might be having nocturnal psychotic episodes.

"Do I have to install a video camera?" he said. "They march up and down my body like they're on a picket line, then they sit on me. They're driving me crazy."

A few nights later, cats still in the bed, I got up at 4 a.m. to go to the bathroom. When I returned, there was Biscuit, sitting in the middle of my sleeping husband's chest, peering into his open mouth as if about to perform periodontal surgery. Goldie was climbing up my husband's legs. I was shaken. It was painful, but I agreed the next morning to banish the cats to the basement at night.

That left an opening for Sasha. She liked to curl up like an armadillo between our pillows during the day, but we had always moved her to her crate for the night. Despite the warnings of provoking deep status anxiety (my own), I decided to let her stay in the bed. I figured it was impossible that Sasha could wreak more havoc than she already was; she obviously wanted to be with us; and I missed the cats. Except for the occasional bout of rabbit-chasing during REM sleep, she has been a quiet and companionable bedmate. While her daytime behavior seems no worse, I have been troubled that I might be making a mistake that could come back to bite me.

There is historical evidence that sleeping with pets is not necessarily aberrant behavior. According to The International Encyclopedia of Dogs, the xoloitzquintli, or Mexican hairless, was used in pre-Aztec Mexico as both pet and bed warmer (and dinner—let's not talk about that here). An account from a 19th-century explorer in Australia, as quoted in The Domestic Dog, describes how Aborigines were so devoted to their dingoes that the dogs were treated as members of the family and allowed to sleep in the hut. (The rock group Three Dog Night takes its name from the supposed Aboriginal practice of judging the coldness of an evening by the number of dogs required to keep warm.)

And here in the land of the electric blanket and the 600-fill goose-down comforter, millions of pet owners are, like me, sacking out with their animals. A survey from the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association found that about 62 percent of American dog and cat owners keep their animals in the house at night, and of those, about half the cats and one-third of the dogs spend the night on the bed. Dr. John Shepard Jr., a physician at the Mayo Clinic Sleep Disorders Center, discovered so many of his haggard patients slept with their animals that he did a survey to see how much the pets disturbed their sleep: About half the pet sleepers said their animal woke them nightly.

But here's the good news. My unscientific survey of veterinary behaviorists concluded that as long as your pets are good at sleeping with you, it's just fine to sleep with them. Pets are not going to get any uppity ideas just because you're all snoring together, they say. Dr. Marsha Reich, who has a private animal-behavior practice in Maryland, says she disagrees with the notion that your dog will try to dominate you if allowed in bed. "It has nothing to do with social status," she says. The dog, like the owner, just likes being cozy and having a soft place to sleep. "Unless a dog growls when you roll over, I don't have a problem with a dog in the bed."

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