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.
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.
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.”
Dr. Nicholas Dodman, author of If Only They Could Speak and director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, celebrates the “warm and fuzzy feeling” of all species curling up in bed together. This is not to say that some animals don’t abuse the privilege. He tells of one couple who came to him after their Yorkshire terrier, who liked to settle in with the wife when she went to bed early to read, took to lunging at the husband when he arrived. There was an obvious solution, and the couple chose it: The husband moved to the guest room. When this proved maritally unsatisfying, they turned to Dr. Dodman. He says such animals have to be re-educated by being placed in a crate at night, or even attached to a dog bed with a long line.
The most common problem with sleeping with cats, says Dr. Lynne Seibert, a behaviorist at the Veterinary Specialty Center in Lynnwood, Wash., is—as my husband can attest—they don’t sleep. “Most of the issues I see are about exuberant play,” she says. “They’ve got a captive audience and end up pouncing and scratching.” The usual cause is that the cats have been home sleeping all day, leaving them ready to party all night. Seibert recommends getting the cats more daytime stimulation and engaging in a play session with them before bed.
Dog trainer Kathy Diamond Davis, in an article at veterinarypartner.com, writes that there’s no reason a well-behaved dog shouldn’t sleep on the bed. However, she recommends having the dog trained to reliably obey a “get off the bed” command, to be used in particular for those moments when “people want to be intimate.” (For couples who don’t use that command, she does not deal with the psychological damage the humans suffer when they find even their most fervent lovemaking doesn’t wake the dog.)
I was relieved to learn that Sasha can stay, but I realized, even if the experts had told me I shouldn’t let her, it wouldn’t have made any difference. Maybe some of us are just born with a desire to sleep with animals. (This could be a debate subject in the next presidential election.) Take my friend Nancy, who has slept with dogs since girlhood. So deep is this need that she and her husband spent years with their epileptic Dalmatian on the end of the bed. The dog regularly woke them in the middle of the night, in midseizure, flailing around and losing control of bodily functions. They became like paramedics, spending the night ever-alert so at the first twitch they could get the dog on the floor and covered in towels. Now Nancy has a Jack Russell terrier puppy. The puppy spends the night burrowed deep under their covers, attached to Nancy like a tick. Nancy is in heaven.