Have Your Healthy Sleep Habits Gone to the Dogs?

Dog people. They’re everywhere and often with their fur-babes in tow. Parks, coffee shops, even food trucks have gone to the dogs. It seems that the year of the dog is long overdue!

healthy sleep habits

While I have not yet let Doug the Pug overrun my newsfeed, I do have a soft spot for our furry friends. I often begged my childhood dog to keep me company whilst I fell asleep, but she didn’t appreciate being disturbed as she tried to drift off to doggie dreamland. When I’d roll over or mess with my pillow, she’d groan and stand up to warn me her patience with my mattress gymnastics was wearing thin.

However, it seems the opposite is true with many dog owners. They can’t seem to get their dog out of their bed – and they may experience poor sleep as a consequence of their furry bedmates.

Sleep is extremely important to our health. During sleep, our brain cycles through different sleep stages, each with its own purpose. Slow wave sleep, the deepest sleep stage, is thought to be especially restorative. Every time you are awakened (whether you notice it or not) or are disturbed even without being totally awakened, your sleep cycle stops and starts back at a lighter sleep stage.

Repeated bouts of this will harm your overall sleep quality and possibly reduce your total sleep time. It’s not just your mood and mental processing that takes a hit. Studies indicate poor sleep is related to weight gain and can increase your risk of developing diseases like Type 2 diabetes. In fact, one study indicated a 25% decrease in insulin sensitivity after only three days of diminished slow wave sleep. Poor insulin sensitivity is a red flag for Type 2 diabetes and it is known to worsen with weight gain. For example, 25% decrease in insulin sensitivity after just three days of poor sleep quality is comparable to gaining 17-28 pounds.

Over half of pet owners cozy up to their pet at night and about one in five people report their pet disrupts their sleep, but others claim their pet either has no effect or helps to improve their sleep. It’s possible that some pet owners may be unaware of sleeping issues and others might just be in fur-mom denial. Standard sleep recommendations call for no pets in the bedroom­ (gasp!) However, when the majority of pet owners views their pets as part of the family and want to spend as much time with them as possible, is this really a realistic request?

A more recent study by a team of sleep researchers suggests that where your dog sleeps is most important and lends some flexibility to the original “no dogs in the bedroom rule.” Instead of Q&A, this study relied on activity monitors specifically used for sleep research to measure sleep. They even had specialized activity monitors for the dogs. This helped the researchers determine sleep efficiency and removed bias from pet owner opinion. Sleep efficiency is the amount of time you actually spend sleeping while in bed. Normal values range between 85-90 percent, but it’s common for sleep efficiency to decline with age. The most efficient sleepers are able to score 90 percent or higher each night.

The participants in this study had slightly lower sleep efficiency at 81 percent and this value worsened if the dog was in the owner’s bed. Not to worry, they found the dogs seemed to sleep just fine no matter where they slept.

After reading this you may look at your sweet pup and cringe at the thought of banishing them from your bed. Prioritizing your health and well-being is also very important, so take an honest assessment of your sleep situation. If you have trouble getting the recommended amount of sleep each night – seven to nine hours (of sleep, not Facebooking in bed) – then the quality of your sleep is that much more important.

If you are a chronic alarm snoozer or you seem to feel more rested during extended bouts away from your pet (say when you’re on vacation), then consider a trial period of a few weeks with them outside of your bedroom, or at least out of your bed. The first few nights will be hard, but in the end your fur babe will get use to the new routine and you’ll wake up better rested and in better shape for a vigorous game of fetch!

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About Kristin Hoddy

Kristin Hoddy PhD RDN is a nutrition researcher and private practice dietitian living in the Chicago area. She has 10 years of working experience in the health and fitness industry, and currently she is a postdoctoral fellow. Kristin is passionate advocate for science communication and aims to help people find “their healthy” by making cutting edge research easier to understand. She enjoys sharing what she learns researching nutrition as a writer and as a private practice dietitian. Feel free to reach out to Kristin @KristinHoddyPhD for nutritional counseling or writing inquiries.