The Importance of Sleep for Hospitalized Pets

Pet Dog Sleeping

Story at-a-glance -

  • Many veterinary practices today are taking steps to shift their focus to be more patient-centered. One of the areas receiving overdue attention is pain management of hospitalized patients. Effective pain control helps animals sleep well, and quality sleep promotes healing.
  • Controlling an animal’s pain doesn’t mean sedating him until he stops vocalizing. It means the effective use of analgesics to increase comfort sufficiently so that the patient can receive restorative sleep.
  • The value of good quality sleep is the subject of much scientific research these days, and it has been established that insufficient sleep in humans can cause or worsen chronic pain, and interfere with a wide variety of biological processes critical to restoring and maintaining good health.
  • In an effort to make hospitalized patients comfortable and speed their recovery, DVMs should think about the ways in which various forms of sensory stimuli either promote or inhibit the healing process. Structural and/or environmental modifications that lessen stress, promote good sleep and enhance recovery should be considered.

By Dr. Becker

Fortunately, it seems many veterinary practices today are trying to re-focus their priorities toward what is best for their animal patients vs. what is most expedient or convenient for the practice and its staff. For example, the need to keep patients warm during and post-surgery is receiving a lot of attention of late, as are feline-friendly environments and handling practices.

The Importance of Restorative Sleep for Veterinary Patients

Another area in which many practices are improving is pain management. Effective pain control promotes good quality rest and sleep, which in turn reduces an animal's stress and supports the healing process.

Successful pain management involves a protocol customized for the individual patient that both alleviates pain and mitigates spinal cord "windup," which is a physiologic phenomenon that results in hypersensitivity in the spinal cord and brain.

Appropriate pain control is not about sedating animals to quiet them, as this approach often doesn't adequately relieve pain, nor does it protect the nervous system. Good pain management includes the effective use of painkilling agents to make patients comfortable enough to engage in restorative sleep.

Poor Sleep Plays a Role in Chronic Pain and Physical Dysfunction

The value of sleep is at long last the subject of scientific research to determine its role not only in relieving pain, but also in whole-body wellness. Poor quality sleep, or not enough restorative sleep, can cause and amplify chronic pain, and studies show the vast majority of people who suffer chronic pain also have trouble sleeping.

Many biological processes critical to maintaining and restoring good health occur during sleep, including production of hormones and new brain neurons. Research in humans also indicates that insufficient sleep can increase the expression of genes associated with inflammation, immune system excitability, diabetes, cancer, and stress.

Improving Vet Hospital Environments to Enhance Patient Comfort and Recovery

Most animals, including humans, face difficulties adjusting to a hospital setting. Artificial round-the-clock lighting has been shown to be disruptive to the natural circadian rhythms of humans, causing sleep and mood disturbances and increased pain levels.

To promote sleep and healing of hospitalized veterinary patients, DVMs should think about the ways in which various forms of sensory stimuli either promote or inhibit the healing process, which includes the ability of hospitalized animals to achieve restful sleep.

Structural and/or environmental modifications that lessen stress and promote recovery should be considered. These might include alterations to traditional vet clinic lighting, noise levels, and smells, as well as improvements in how hospitalized patients are housed.

Where feasible, replicating the normal 24-hour light-dark cycle can be beneficial, as can limiting loud or livelier music to daylight hours, and then switching to soothing sounds or complete quiet overnight.

I designed my hospital to have separate dog and cat wards as well as room-by-room sound systems, full spectrum lighting and individualized aromatherapy units in each room. So in theory, we could play soothing music in a relatively dark room while diffusing lavender to a stressed out cat with pancreatitis, while offering full spectrum day light, a symphony concerto and an uplifting citrus oil diffusion to a listless dog in the next room. At night, all lights are off except nightlights, which helps patients orient themselves when they wake up. Allowing hospitalized animals to sit outside daily (weather permitting, of course) is also very important for their mental health and well-being, not to mention the positive effects from being grounded.

Sleep Fosters Healing… and It's Free

Restorative sleep is an entirely natural, safe, cost-free, and powerful healing resource that we, as veterinarians, should take full advantage of with our hospitalized patients, and even at home, with our own pets. Making sure all of our animals get at least 8 hours of deep, restful sleep in a dark room, followed by ample time outside, in direct sunlight, is critical for normal circadian rhythms and overall well-being.

Effective pain management, comfortable crating/kenneling, lighting that mimics natural patterns of daylight and darkness, a quiet environment attended to by quiet staff, and soft, soothing background sounds can be hugely beneficial in restoring health to our hospitalized patients.

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