Pain Researchers Say Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Most people with chronic pain recognize the importance of good sleeping habits. A night spent tossing and turning can mean a day full of aches and pains.

For that reason, dog lovers are often told they shouldn’t sleep with their pet. One survey of pet owners found that over half said their dogs tend to wake them at least once during the night. Sleeping with a pet can also be unsanitary and lead to behavioral problems.   

"Typically, people who have pain also have a lot of sleep problems, so usually if they ask their healthcare provider about a pet, they're told to get the pet out of the bedroom. But that standard advice can actually be damaging," says Cary Brown, PhD, a Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Alberta.

Brown is co-author of a small study, published in the journal of Social Sciences, in which seven chronic pain patients who slept with their dogs were asked about their pets’ impact on their sleep. Brown said the response was "overwhelmingly positive."

"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," said Brown.

"A sense of relaxation and caring are emotions that release positive hormones in our bodies that will help us sleep better."

Having our pets sleep with us can also help ward off loneliness. A dog can take on a significant role for the chronically ill when friends drift away and social circles shrink.

bed-1284238_640.jpg

“I’ve got my buddy and I’ve got my companion hanging out with me and I don’t get that loneliness,” one patient said.

“I always have got somebody to cuddle and make me feel loved when I am lonely and in pain and when I am trying to sleep,” said another.

Researchers say doctors need to have deeper conversations with their patients before suggesting that a pet sleep somewhere else.

"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," Brown said. "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."

For some patients, it’s also a reciprocal relationship. They try to help their dogs sleep and comfort them when they have pain.

“She [the dog] has days when she experiences lots of pain, I make myself get down on the floor at her level …. I will sit with her and talk with her and very softly, very calmly, I make a point of massaging her ever so gently,” one woman said. “I find this brings down her heart rate, she’s not in pain, the pain is starting to go down. I can physically see the changes in her and eventually she nods off to sleep.”

Although dogs have been living with people for thousands of years – and often sleeping with them – surprisingly little is known about the emotional and physical benefits of sharing a bed.

“This small study shines a light on this important and yet neglected area of research. It reveals that for these participants their dog appears to enhance their sleep in many ways. Further research is warranted to explore more fully the ways in which pet dogs influence sleep for people with chronic pain,” said Brown.