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Monday, 31 August 2015

Science wants to know about the dog in your bed


Hi Mia and Julie,

Out of all the potential sleeping places in the house, I’m pretty sure your four-legged companion would prefer to sleep in your bed! Does yours?

The decision to let your pet into your bed is a topic that often divides owners, but it might just be more common than you think. Around half of pet owners sleep alongside their pets. The luckiest seem to be dogs (although Great Danes probably miss out here) and cats. It is believed that around 40-50% of pet owners sleep alongside their pets - many of whom, go to extreme lengths to accommodate them (like the guy below). 

Yet for such a common practice, we know relatively little about how and why people do it, or the implications. Do dog and cat owners jeopardise their sleep quality to accommodate their animal companions in their bed or bedroom? Think about when your dog needs to go out for a pee at 2am, or wakes you before your alarm goes off in the morning because they are ready to play, or hungry for breakfast. Or what about the point in the night when the cat decides your face is the most comfortable place to sleep? After all, dogs and cat have completely different sleep needs and circadian rhythms to humans, and are much more sensitive to stimuli, even when asleep. 


A lot of the information that exists on this topic tends to focus on the health and hygiene implications (e.g. transfer of diseases, asthma and allergies). This is something I can related to. The day my wife and I watched our border collie roll around in fresh poo was the day we knew she was never going to join us in our bed…ever! But in reality, there is no real health risks, so long as you keep your pet clean and healthy.

I have been involved in several studies with colleague of mine, Dr Kirrilly Thompson, seeking to gain an understanding of this topic. First, in a survey of the sleep behaviours of 10,000 Australians, we gained some preliminary insight. We found that around 1 in 10 Australians bed-shared with their pet (this excluded those that allow their animals to sleep on the bedroom floor). 

We found 3 ways that human sleep practices were impacted:
  1. It took pet bed-sharers longer than non-pet bed-sharers to get to sleep 
  2. Pet bed-sharers woke up more tired, and 
  3. Pet bed-sharers were more likely to be woken during the night from dogs barking and animal noises.

It seems that there is a lot to this relationship, and many people are willing to make sacrifices to their own sleep. Maybe its because our pets provide us with a sense of security and comfort, or perhaps it’s the only way to keep the animal from causing more problems!

In a follow-up study, with our honours student Peta Hazelton, we conducted the first in-depth look into human-dog co-sleeping. The study, which included an Australian only sample, revealed the rate of human-dog co-sleeping was high (69%) amongst the 1,328 dog owners we sampled.

The most common dog sleeping location was in the bedroom, on top of the covers (34%), followed by in the bedroom on the floor (22%), in the house but not in the bedroom (21%), in the bed and under the covers (13%), and 10% of dogs slept outside. Heat map images revealed when two people are in a double (or larger) bed, dogs frequently slept between, or at the feet of couple. When one person is in a double (or larger) bed, dogs generally slept at chest level, presumably opposite participants. For those in a single bed, the dog often slept on the floor beside the bed.

So why do dog owners choose to bed share? 
The study revealed that people's motivations to co-sleep are diverse, with responses including for dog behavioural issues (barking or destructive behaviours if not in the bedroom), health reasons (needed to keep seizure alert dog nearby), owner’s attitude (viewing the dog as a family member or ‘pack’), factors out of their control (participant’s human sleeping partner or the dog made the decision), logistics (nowhere else for the dog to sleep), routine or habit (not wanting to disrupt the dog’s nightly routine), and becoming dependant on the dog’s presence to sleep (as well as feeling the dog did not disrupt sleep, therefore no need to alter the arrangement).

But not all dog owners felt the same, with many reasons given as to why they chose not to co-sleep with their dog. These included, dog behavioural issues (wanting to avoid the dog developing dominant or dependent behaviour), health (co-sleeping would provoke allergies or is unhygienic), disruptive behaviours (the dog is too restless), interpersonal relationships (human sleeping partner would not allow it or it would impede intimacy), dog characteristics (size of the dog), owner’s attitude (the dog doesn’t belong in the house), and logistics (owning too many dogs to co-sleep).  
Location of dog’s sleeping position (chest) for participants that slept on a double, queen or king size bed and two people in the bed, n = 517
In the end, co-sleeping (with whatever species) naturally disturbs our sleep, yet people continue to do it. But given all the health benefits of pet ownership, the good certainly outweighs the bad. It’s up to the individual owner whether they choose to co-sleep with their animal/s, or not.

We are currently in the process of conducting another study (with our honours student Jessica Mack), this time focussing on the impact of co-sleeping on sleep quality and quantity. 

If you are one of the many dog owners that bed-share with your dog, we would love if you could complete our online survey and share it with others who might be interested.

Access the survey here: tinyurl.com/humandogcosleeping

Tell us - where did your dog sleep last night?

Dr Bradley Smith BPsych(Hons) PhD 
Lecturer & Senior Post-doctoral Research Fellow
Appleton Institute, School of Human Health & Social Sciences 
CQUniversity Adelaide, Australia


If you found this interesting, you may also enjoy our previous guest post by Bradley Smith: Take a walk on the wild side: Dingo science, or see all of our guest contributors.

Further information:

Smith, B., Thompson, K., Clarkson, L., Dawson, D. (2014). The prevalence and implicationsof human-animal co-sleeping in an Australian sample. Anthrozoƶs, 27 (4), 543–551.

There is a Channel 7 Today Tonight segment relating to human-animal co-sleeping that aired on Jan 29, 2015:

 © 2015 Bradley Smith | Do You Believe in Dog?