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Can Sleeping with Your Pet Make You Sick?

Woman sleeping with pet dogSurveys taken through the years indicate that from 14 to over 60 percent of pet-owning Americans let Fluffy or Fido sleep in bed with them.

In an article titled ‘Zoonoses in the Bedroom’ which will appear in the February 2011 issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases, co-author Bruno Chomel, a professor at the University of California-Davis school of veterinary medicine, asserts the practice can be dangerous.

For their article, Chomel and Ben Sun, chief veterinarian with the California Department of Public Health, compiled a list of possible pathogens that can be transmitted from your pet to you through close contact. Those diseases include:

According to Chomel, "The risk is rare, but when it occurs it can be very nasty, and especially in immuno-compromised people and the very young.”

Larry Kornegay, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), says infectious transmission of this type is “uncommon if not rare.” Kornegay recommends pet owners use common sense precautions like washing their hands after interacting with pets, and taking companion animals for regular vet wellness checkups.

Kornegay says, "… the benefits of having a pet, whether or not you sleep with it, far outweigh the negatives, which are quite uncommon."

Dr. Becker's Comments:

Okay, by a show of hands, how many of you who sleep with a pet plan to banish your four-legged bedmate to the floor after reading the above?

I didn’t think so.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Some pet owners never allow their animals on their bed.

And plenty of devoted dog and cat parents don’t tolerate slobbery dog kisses or kitty nibbles on their faces, either.

For those folks, the revelation that they can catch things from their pets is no surprise. It will reaffirm the decision to keep Fluffy or Fido at a safe distance from both their sleeping quarters and their mucous membranes.

Other people happily make room on the bed for their pets, saying to heck with allergies, fur-lined sheets and the risk of contracting a zoonotic disease.

These folks wouldn’t dream of insisting the dog or cat sleep elsewhere.

Lots of pet owners are very closely bonded to their animals, and having them close at night provides feelings of safety and comfort.

Some people with insomnia find they are able to fall asleep and stay asleep thanks to the rhythmic breathing of a dog sleeping against them.

Thinking of Making a Change?

What if you’ve always allowed your pet to sleep with you but now you want to make a change – for hygienic purposes, or because your cat hogs the pillow or your pooch snores like a buzz saw, or for some other reason?

It can be done, but plan to be extremely consistent and patient with your furry companion as you transition him from the bed to the floor. As long as your pet can get onto the bed himself, changing his behavior will be a challenge.

If your pet is a dog:

  • Invest in a good quality dog bed and place it at the side or foot of your bed.
  • Teach your dog to get off your bed and onto his bed on command, using praise, treats and affection each time he executes the desired behavior.
  • Remember: reinforcing good behavior is how dogs learn. Give your pup no attention while he’s on your bed; lavish attention on him when he is on his own bed on the floor.
  • Understand your dog will continue to jump up on your bed at night for awhile. You are his pack leader and nature is telling him to sleep as close as possible to his pack. Each time he jumps up on your bed give the command to get down.
  • After several nights or even a week or two of being commanded (repeatedly) off the bed, your dog may learn to wait until you’re asleep to join you. He’s not being sneaky or disobedient – he’s following his instincts as a pack animal whose pack leader has always been right next to him in bed. With patience, persistence and consistency, your pup will eventually figure out his new sleeping spot is on the floor.

If your pet is a cat, I must be honest with you – this will be a much bigger project.

Unlike dogs who are attached first to their pack, cats are attached to what they perceive as their territory. If she’s been sleeping with you at night, make no mistake -- your bed is her territory.

  • You won’t be able to keep Fluffy off your bed if she’s in your bedroom, so I recommend you not even try. You can shoo her away before you drift off, but your stealthy little feline will be right back on ‘her’ bed long before you fall fully asleep.
  • Shutting kitty out of the bedroom is not apt to be as simple as it sounds, either. Cats don’t take kindly to forfeiting territory. She may cause an unholy ruckus right outside the door – crying, yowling, thumping, smacking at the door handle, scratching at the floor. Or she might become destructive from frustration.
  • You’ll need to try to entice your cat to other places in your house at night with things like treat-release foraging toys, other favorite toys, or maybe a kitty condo or perch near an outside light so she can look through the window for flying prey. Also provide her with soft, warm bedding if she doesn’t already have a favorite napping spot elsewhere in the house.
  • Creativity is the key to success here – you have to give your cat something to do besides obsess over no longer being allowed in the bed she so generously shared with you.

Starting Out on the Right Foot with a New Pet

If you’re adding a new pet to the family, there are all kinds of things to decide ahead of time, not the least of which is where you want the new little boy or girl to sleep.

If you’re bringing a new puppy home, I recommend you purchase a crate. Many of you may have already watched my videos on crate training and know I consider it a very important part of keeping your precious pup safe when you’re not at home or can’t keep a constant eye on him. It can also be a tremendous help while you’re housebreaking your pet.

Contrary to what some dog owners seem to believe, crates are not evil things. Dogs are natural den dwellers. If there’s been no bad past experience with a crate or confinement in a small space, your pup will very much appreciate access to a small, safe, dark place of his own.

If your family decides your dog should sleep in his crate at night, don’t start him out on your bed and then try to move him to the crate after a few days or weeks. Your pup has already learned his nighttime sleeping spot is your bed. Moving him to the crate may cause an exaggerated response – whining or crying, typically -- over and above what you could have expected had you crated him on his first night with you.

If you’ve decided your dog will sleep with you, I recommend you have him thoroughly checked out by a vet first to insure he’s not sick with something transmittable to you. Depending on your pup’s background and health status, you may want to have him sleep in his crate for up to his first 30 days home – sort of a ‘quarantine’ period to insure he’s healthy enough to share your bed with you.

If your new pet is a kitty, set her up in her own little space for at least her first week home. Separate her in a room or other quiet area of the house. Put her litter box, food and toys in her space, and keep noise and visitors to a minimum until she is acclimated to her new home and family.

If you don’t want your cat to sleep with you, close the bedroom door from her first night home. This will prevent her from deciding your bedroom and bed is her territory. She might just develop the habit of sleeping each night in the quiet space you set up for her.

After a few weeks, you can try leaving your bedroom door open to see if she jumps up on the bed to sleep with you. She may or may not, and if she doesn’t, you can try sleeping with your bedroom door open if you prefer.