Healthcare providers often recommend removing pets from the bedroom in order to improve a patient’s sleep quality. While dogs can certainly be disruptive bed hogs, a study conducted by the University of Alberta suggests their presence may be “overwhelmingly positive” for pet parents suffering with chronic pain.
“When you ask people to remove an animal they are in the habit of co-sleeping with, it could have consequences the health-care provider hasn’t considered,” says Cary Brown of UA’s Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine. “For some people with chronic pain, their relationship with their pet could be the only one they have and the comfort that dog or cat produces would be lost. It’s equivalent to kicking their partner out of bed.”
According to Brown, study participants reported an increased sense of well-being when their dogs slept with them.
“They liked the physical contact with their dogs—cuddling before bed, and how it distracted them from feeling anxious about being alone at night. They felt more relaxed and safer so they weren’t anxious as they were trying to sleep.”
She explains that chronic pain sufferers often experience loneliness when they find themselves unable to participate in social events. Having a dog for companionship not only wards off feelings of isolation, it provides a sense of relaxation and caring “that release positive hormones in our bodies that will help us sleep better.”
In addition to comfort and companionship, having a dog also prompts people with chronic health issues to stick to a routine of daily activity and set bedtime rituals.
“Those are two key things for sleep—you get up at the same time every day and you are active. If you take the pet out of the equation, you lose that,” says Brown.
She added that banishing pets from the bedroom to ensure better sleep isn’t necessarily evidence-based and needs more research.
“The belief is based on a certain theory of thought about associating certain practices with the bedroom, but they aren’t updated or tested,” Brown explains. “The study challenges this traditional advice and shows that we need to pursue this further.”
She recommends patients and medical professionals have more in depth conversations about their bedtime routines before automatically assuming pets are part of the problem.
“We shouldn’t jump to simplistic thinking, that getting rid of the pet will make everything fine. We need to think more carefully about helping the patient weigh the pros and cons and make that decision for themselves, instead of being told. They shouldn’t be made to feel guilty about prioritizing a pet relationship over the professional advice they’ve been given.”