Snoring, slugs and sarcoptic mange: is it safe for cats and dogs to sleep on our beds?

Dogs can carry bacteria and parasites, while cats smuggle in gory ‘presents’. So is it best to lock them out of the bedroom?

Vomiting on the bed. Snoring. The shedding of hair. The stealing of sheets. The passing of wind. Night-time face-licking. A higher-than-average chance of catching sarcoptic mange …

If I could sit my dog down and quietly explain the risks associated with him sharing the bed with us, this is the list I would read to him. But I know he wouldn’t listen. Oz, our young lurcher, would only warmly reimagine that scene he recently saw. When, on my birthday, the family let him come upstairs and on to the bed to wake me up. When he saw, for the first time, Upstairs Land. And then widdled with joy.

This single momentous event started a great debate in our household. Isn’t it time we let Oz upstairs more often? What’s so bad about him sleeping upstairs? He’s encroached on every other part of our lives – why not this one, too?

But like many pet owners, I’m torn. “Doesn’t sleeping with dogs get them into bad habits?” I find myself thinking. “Might it spoil the dog? And what if I catch some God-awful disease?” They’re questions that have been asked for centuries.

Early on the argument against co-sleeping with pets was about its effect on human sex lives. In the 18th century, for instance, when the keeping of lapdogs by women was becoming increasingly fashionable, popular satires depicted it as a threat to bedroom order.

“In such satires, the husband feels that the dog on the bed is denying him what should be his by right – his wife’s company and attention, and therefore the sexual gratification she should be providing,” says Dr Stephanie Howard-Smith, cultural historian of human-dog relations.

According to the dog historian and vet Alison Skipper, the arguments changed in the centuries that followed. By the late 19th century, keeping dogs off the bed became the pet owner’s duty to the dog. The idea was that an outdoor kennel was far better for a dog’s health than being choked by a coal fire in a stuffy bedroom.

As scientific inquiry continued apace, new reasons to avoid sleeping with dogs emerged in the 20th century. We learned more about the threat of disease – super-bug strains of staphylococcus or parasitic infections of mites, ticks or gut-worms, for instance. We also learned that co-sleeping risks “spoiling” the dog, apparently unlocking a wolf-like desire to overthrow the owner in a bid for “alpha” status. Dogs needed “putting in their place” and that place was absolutely not the human den upstairs.

An owner with their cat on a bed
Cats have shorter sleep cycles so may wake light sleepers. Photograph: Linda Raymond/Getty Images

Do arguments like these still hold any weight?

The simple answer is: not much. The idea that man’s best friend is waiting for its moment to gain top-dog status turned out to have been built on some pretty shaky scientific foundations. And the disease risk associated with co-sleeping is far less of an issue than was once thought.

“There’s no doubt that dogs can carry bacteria and parasites that could do us some harm, but generally I think the risk is very low,” says Prof James Logan, head of the department of disease control at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “You could argue that being exposed to some of these organisms might actually do you some good – people who have grown up with pets and other animals tend to have fewer allergies, for example.”

Basically, provided you stay up-to-date with worming and flea treatments, you’re good to go. But new arguments against sharing your bed with a dog have appeared. There is evidence that it can encourage possessive behaviour in some dogs (growling or biting when others approach, for instance), or make it harder for them to cope when the owners are away from home.

“Most vets would recommend not letting dogs sleep near children,” says Dr Jess French, author and vet. “And dogs that get used to sleeping with you can become stressed when you’re away, so there is an argument that having their own safe space is the better approach.” Co-sleeping might not suit all dogs, all of the time, in other words.

You’ll notice at this point, a distinct lack of talk about cats. In trademark fashion, they appear to have strolled around the edge of the bed debate, found a warm spot somewhere else and settled down for a quiet nap. Perhaps it is because they come and go in the night without the same level of dependence upon us? Yet there are clearly arguments against having cats in the bed.

As with dogs, there is the obvious risk to young children (particularly common are scratches that get infected) and cats have shorter sleep cycles and move around more frequently, which might become a problem for light sleepers. Some cats hunt at night and bring to the bed “presents” in the form of prey or (according to one correspondent) slugs stuck in their fur. Plus, there are fleas and other parasites that, as with dogs, need keeping in check.

My own family’s experiences with cats have been mixed. Two made our sleep unbearable because of their inability to understand the concept of object permanence: that when a limb goes under the sheet it has not become a potential rat or mouse worth stalking. The other cat was more complex – he seemed to unleash a lifetime of repressed emotional gratitude for our rescuing him into discrete 10-minute bursts of massaging and purring. It was lovely (I wrote about it here) but was it conducive to getting a good night’s sleep? Not at all.

According to numerous surveys, though, about 50% of pet owners decide they can live with such drawbacks. According to their testimonies, co-sleeping with dogs and cats helps soothe anxiety and fear, stops them becoming agitated by noises, keeps away loneliness (often in both parties) and keeps the bed nice and warm. There is no scratching at the door. They sleep better and feel better connected with their animal companions. All of a sudden, it sounds rather tempting.

In Downstairs Land, Oz is being a good boy. He doesn’t whine. He’s not trying it on. He chews on the Kong puppy toy I give him before shutting the kitchen door and soon, as with every night, he will flop down on his bed, alone. He waits. When the time is right, I suspect he’ll have his way. As long as we acknowledge the risks, the pearly stair-gate to Upstairs Land may open once more. And, perhaps, we’ll be all the happier for it.


Jules Howard

The GuardianTramp

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