When Your Pet Disturbs Your Sleep, What Should You Do?

Pets in Bedroom

Story at-a-glance -

  • Forty-five percent of dogs, and 62 percent of cats, sleep in their owners’ beds, according to the National Pet Owners Survey
  • Up to 10 percent of pet owners who visited the Mayo Clinic Center for Sleep Medicine said their pet sometimes disturbed their sleep
  • Separate research found 30 percent of pet owners who allow their pets to sleep in their beds said they woke up at least once a night due to their pets, and among those who shared their bed more than four nights a week, 63 percent reported poor sleep quality
  • To help avoid interrupted sleep, it’s important that you set a schedule for your pet that includes playtime, exercise, and feeding during daylight hours only… and stick to it
  • If you need to make a change to have your pet sleep elsewhere than your bed, it is possible – although it will take some consistence and patience (a step-by-step guide is included)

By Dr. Becker

Forty-five percent of dogs, and 62 percent of cats, sleep in their owners' beds, according to the National Pet Owners Survey.1 Other estimates suggest that more than 60 percent of pet owners let their dog or cat share their beds.2

The reasons so many of us do so are obvious… a warm, furry pet can be a perfect sleeping companion, providing you (or your children) with a feeling of security and offering endless snuggles.

One Vetstreet survey of veterinary professionals even found that 13 percent of veterinary professionals and 33 percent of Vetstreet readers who allow their pets in bed said they believe their pets help them sleep.3  

There are probably few pet owners around, however, who haven't had their sleep disrupted on more than one occasion, whether their dog or cat sleeps in their bed or not. And this appears to be more the rule rather than the exception.

A Pet in Your Bed Might Harm Your Sleep

This is probably not ground-breaking news to anyone, especially anyone with pets… but a study conducted at the Mayo Clinic Center for Sleep Medicine in Arizona found that up to 10 percent of pet owners who visited the clinic said their pet sometimes disturbed their sleep.4 Among the top disturbances reported by pet owners were:

  • Whimpering
  • Wandering
  • Snoring
  • Needing to "go outside"
  • Sleeping under the covers

Separate research also found significant disturbances when pets share their owners' beds. In a survey of 300 people, more than half of whom let their pets sleep in their beds, 30 percent said they woke up at least once a night due to their pets.

And among those who shared their bed more than four nights a week, 63 percent reported poor sleep quality while 5 percent said they "always or almost always had trouble falling back to sleep after being disturbed by a pet."5

In some cases, pet owners, including 58 percent of those surveyed in a past Mayo Clinic study, said their sleep was interrupted simply by allowing their pets to sleep in the same room.6 That being said, some of the pet owners also reported that they felt comforted by having their pets in their bed, so do what feels right to you.

Have You Created a Monster?

Some of the reasons why pets disturb their owners during the night are easily explained. Your pet may need to be let outside to urinate. Or he may be cold and prefer sleeping under your covers to sleeping in a downstairs laundry room. Other dogs -- such as Cavalier King Charles spaniels, Pugs, Pomeranians, and Shih tzus – tend to be cuddlers by nature and will simply be happier sleeping by your side.

In other cases, however, the disturbance may present more of a mystery. A dog that wakes up frequently to urinate may have a urinary tract infection or even vaginitis. A cat that wanders aimlessly during the night and cries out for no apparent reason may have cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS). If medical problems have been ruled out, there's a good chance some of your pet's nighttime behaviors may even have been created, in part, by you.

When you add a new pet to your family, this is the best time to decide where you want your pet to sleep. If your pet will be sleeping in his own space, such as a crate, start him there from day one to avoid a struggle later. If you allow your dog or cat to sleep on your bed, he will quickly learn that that is his sleeping spot, understandably so.

If you allow your pet to share your bed or your bedroom, you also need to set up some "ground rules." If your cat wants to have a play session at 3 a.m. and you indulge her, you can expect her to wake you up again the next night… likewise if your dog begs for food at midnight.

There are some proactive solutions you can take to avoid situations such as these… such as making sure your cat gets ample playtime during the day, and moving your dog's dinnertime a bit later to sustain him overnight.

Ultimately, however, if you expect to sleep through the night, it's important that you set a schedule for your pet that includes playtime, exercise and feeding during daylight hours only… and stick to it. (If you have a puppy or kitten, this doesn't apply, as you can expect them to need attention during the night.)

Transitioning Your Pet Out of Your Bedroom

For many pet owners, the comfort of having their pets close by during the night outweighs an occasional sleep disturbance. If, however, you find that your sleep is being intolerably disrupted and you need to make a change, it is possible – although it will take some consistence and patience.

If your pet is a dog:

  • Invest in a good-quality dog bed and place it at the side or foot of your bed. Add pillows, blankets, and special nighttime toys as you see fit.
  • 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 a while. 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.

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