It’s interesting that in a world where the idea of sharing the mattress with bedbugs absolutely horrifies most people, the prospect of sleeping with large, furry animals certainly does not. In fact, there’s a whole industry devoted to manufacturing ramps to help dogs climb into owners’ beds. I know this because a friend of mine has such a ramp for her elderly golden retriever. When the dog got too feeble to take the leap up into bed by himself, my friend didn’t consider the possibility that maybe the canine really didn’t need to sleep sprawled across her feet. And she’s hardly alone.
An American Pet Products Association survey showed that “62% of small dogs, 41% of medium-sized dogs and 32% of large dogs sleep with their owners,” while “62% of cats sleep with their adult owners, and another 13% of cats sleep with children.” You would think the mattress manufacturers would jump on that statistic and start making litter-size beds for people and their pets. But like teenagers so hormone-driven that they cram into the back seat of the Mustang in order to neck, pet-loving people manage to fit the animal onto the mattress no matter the size.
It’s astonishing that so many people let pets sleep with them, given the popular notion that it’s a dirty thing to do — letting pets on the furniture, that is. But is it really unhealthy? According to Derek Damin of Kentuckiana Allergy, Asthma & Immunology in Louisville, KY there’s no real problem with sleeping with your pet unless you’re allergic. If you are, you should not only keep Fido off your bed, you should banish him from the bedroom altogether, he says. Nevertheless, Damin claims, “If you’re not allergic, there’s really no big issue with having a dog in the bed. It’s fine as long as it doesn’t disturb your sleep.”
Ahh! If that were the end of the story. Unfortunately, not all the experts agree with Damin. Bruno Chomel, for instance, who is a professor of zoonoses at University of California Davis, and his co-author Ben Sun reviewed published literature about people’s physical contact with their pets and found that there is indeed some health risk. They came up with about 100 risks associated with “pet intimacy” — including sleeping with pets, kissing them, and being licked by them.
One of those risks is bubonic plague, which can come from a flea bite. Chomel and Sun report the case of a nine-year-old who contracted the plague from sleeping with his sick cat when a plague-carrying flea bit the child. A 2008 study showed that among plague survivors, 44 percent had slept with their dog. Even when the researchers took into account numerous other factors, the risk of plague from sleeping with a dog remained extremely high…relatively speaking. Interestingly, cats can’t carry plague fleas without getting sick, but dogs can, which raises the risk. (Perhaps that’s one of the reasons for the expression “lucky dog”.) So if you live in an area that has reported that animals carry plague — like most of the Midwest and Western US — you might want to think twice about inviting Spot and Fluffy under the covers.
Another illness spread by pests from pets is Chagas disease. This is one of the deadliest parasitic infections in Latin America. This disease is spread through the bite of an insect known as “the kissing bug,” and can be fatal. A study conducted in Argentina showed that dog and cat owners were at increased risk of the disease, and owners who slept with their pets were at significantly higher risk. By the way, don’t slough this one off if you live in the US. Some experts fear it is working its way north — particularly as temperatures continue to rise in northern latitudes.
You can also get illnesses such as Lyme Disease from ticks crawling off of your pet and onto you. Then there’s Cat-Scratch Disease (also known as Cat-Scratch Fever, a name made famous by rocker Ted Nugent). And yes, it is caused by cat scratches (and bites or exposure to cat saliva), if the cat is infected. A Connecticut study showed that patients with pets were much more likely to contract the disease if they slept with a kitten. And pet-borne illnesses aren’t restricted to those coming from parasites and bites. You can also get communicable diseases that pass from pet to person, such as the case of a woman who developed meningitis after transferring food to her dog mouth to mouth.
And there’s another health risk that comes from pets on your mattress — disturbed sleep. A Mayo Clinic Sleep Disorders Center study showed that of pet owners who slept with their dog or cat, 53 percent reported that the animal disturbed their sleep nightly. As we all know, good sleep is essential to good health. So if your dog is a blanket hog or your cat is a snorer, you may want to relegate them to their own sleeping quarters.
But safety isn’t everything. The truth is that sharing your bed at all — whether with canine, feline, or human — is an inherently dangerous proposition. Your chances of getting an STD go up exponentially if you sleep with another person. So do your chances of catching the common cold, the deadly swine flu, and virtually any communicable disease, as does the possibility that your bed-mate’s snoring will arouse you from slumber. The safest bed is the solitary one, but what fun is that? If we wanted to completely insulate ourselves from disease we would never procreate or recreate in bed; but clearly there are mitigating factors, and so it is with our pets.
The truth is that the risk is not so great that you need to immediately relegate Rover to the cold floor, unless you prefer it that way. If your pets are clean and free of ticks, receive regular veterinary care, and are up to date on their vaccinations, you’ll probably be just fine, although young children whose immune systems are still developing and adults with compromised immune systems may be better off pet-less in bed.
Some people feel safer with their dog nestled at their feet (or flopped across their legs, as in the case of my friend’s 84-pound Golden). Many feel happier, and happiness boosts the immune system. Perhaps the instinct to sleep with pets goes back to our roots as cave dwellers where domesticated animals helped us to stay warm and acted as early warning systems against lurking predators. In any case, the desire to sleep with our pets seems deeply ingrained (in both them and us).
One other thing you may want to consider: Most pet behaviorists agree that pets get confused about their role when you let them sleep with you. And really, who wants a psychologically challenged pet? So if you want to avoid a trip to the animal shrink, the floor may be the best place for your pet after all.