Pets Can Deprive Owners of Sleep

ByAlexa Pozniak

Feb. 14, 2002 -- It's the middle of the night, and 16-year-old Minnie Fontana awakens her household with the clatter of footsteps and loud cries. Sometimes she's hungry, and other times she just wants some attention.

No, Minnie is not an annoying adolescent. She's a demanding cat. And her owner, Grace Fontana of Nahant, Mass., says she and her husband are seriously sleep deprived because of their four-legged friend's nightly routine.

"We may be in bed for seven to eight hours, but my husband feels like he is existing on five hours of sleep," Grace laments.

And the Fontana family is not alone.

A study conducted by Mayo Clinic sleep researchers found more than half of the patients seeking consultations at their sleep clinic are pet owners complaining of nightly sleep disturbances by their furry companions.

And while 41 percent of sleepy pet owners said the disruptions came from allowing their pets to share their beds, another 58 percent reported the problems stem from simply allowing their pets to sleep in the same room.

Weary owners also complained that their pets' snoring steals away shut-eye time. On average, 21 percent of the patients slept with dogs who snore, and 7 percent with snoring cats.

"I suspect that the degree of sleep disruption experienced may be significantly greater than we believe," says Dr. John Shepard, lead author of the study and medical director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the Mayo Clinic.

Sharing the Covers

Christine Lawson of Stockton, Calif., shares her bed not just with her husband but also with their four cats, who sneak under the covers after she's fallen asleep.

"One has chosen my legs to sleep on, the other sleeps or will try to sleep with her head in my hand, so I am literally hugging the cat," says Lawson. "The others sleep on the bed between my husband and me. I am constantly aware of the presence and try not to roll over on them. I am deprived of sleep when I awaken, and am exhausted before my day begins. "

Even ABCNEWS' own medical editor, Dr. Timothy Johnson, has his sleep disturbed by his 8-pound dog, Mozart, with whom he and his wife share their bed.

"Mozart sometimes gets thirsty during the night and sometimes he needs to you-know-what," Johnson explains. "So I have to get up with him usually once a night because my wife is sleeping so soundly. Sometimes I can get back to sleep quickly, and sometimes I can't. And it's the 'can't' times that remind me how much having a pet in bed with you can disrupt your sleep."

Serious Sleep Deprivation

Experts say the average person typically needs at least eight hours of sleep each night. Sleep disturbances, caused by pets or otherwise, have both physical and mental effects.

"You don't perform well, you don't make good decisions, and over time it really adds up," says Dr. Joyce Walsleben, director of sleep disorders at New York University. "Sleepy people tend to be more irritable, have a slower reaction time, and have difficulty with decision making. You can also have real problems with things such as driving."

After a few months of observing Minnie the cat wake her husband repeatedly during the night, Grace Fontana has begun to see signs of sleep deprivation.

"My husband definitely feels exhausted," she says. "His response and reaction time is much slower, and he is not as efficient as he normally would be. He is not getting enough of the 'good sleep.' "

What's an Owner to Do?

Walsleben says something definitely needs to be done.

"Enough of life interferes with your sleep, and a pet could certainly be removed, or have their habits changed," says Walsleben. "You probably can't control your kids coming in and waking you up, but you can control your pet."

According to Shepard, one simple solution is to train the pet to sleep in a different location. And remember, for the pet, comfort is key.

"You should make a spot that is warm and comfortable for them with pillows and blankets, so you don't feel as guilty about excluding them from the bedroom," says Shepard. "People will go to extreme lengths to make their pets comfortable in the beds that they purchase and buy for them."

John C. Wright, animal behaviorist and author of the new book Ain't Misbehavin': Groundbreaking Program for Happy, Well-Behaved Pets and Their People, says pets disturbing sleep has been a big problem for years. And there are many explanations for their bad behavior.

"It all depends on what biological or social need is not being met," explains Wright. "You have to figure it out and address the problem."

"Cats can be just as active when you're awake as when you're asleep," he adds. "Or sometimes they're hungry because they eat a little bit 10 or 12 times a day, instead of one or two big meals. Kittens may jump up on you at night and lick or knead you. Or they're cold, and when you're lying down under the covers, cats like it because it's warm."

Dogs, says Wright, have different needs and subsequently different reasons for waking their owners up.

"They may need to go outside and urinate in the middle of the night, others want to be fed," explains Wright. "If they're puppies, they may need a little attention. And if you do that once, they're likely to try that the next night, and so on."

Lay Down the Law

For both cats and dogs, Wright recommends setting a schedule and sticking to it.

"Move up your pet's feeding time so you can let them out earlier, or just don't answer them when they start to bark or cry. A few sleepless nights are worth it in the long run," says Wright.

Fontana says she's now paying the price for not following that advice.

"I think we created a monster by getting up in the first place, but then again, the low meow is harder on the ear than hearing a baby cry," she says. "It is quite obnoxious."

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