March 30, 2023
The researchers looked at data from the CDC’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which asks questions on a variety of health topics. They adjusted for factors that could affect sleep—including race, income, age, gender, and BMI—and focused on whether a person owned a cat or a dog.
Sleep quality was measured by looking at reported bouts of snoring or snorting at night; being diagnosed with a sleep disorder; having trouble sleeping or falling asleep; waking up during the night; waking up too early; feeling unrested; not getting enough sleep; needing medication to sleep; or having leg jerks or cramps. Taking longer than 15 minutes to fall asleep and regularly getting fewer than six hours of sleep were also indicators of poor sleep.
The findings showed that having a dog was associated with a greater chance of having a sleep disorder or, overall, having trouble sleeping; while having a cat was associated with having a higher chance of leg jerks during the night.
The study was observational, meaning the researchers could not say for certain the pets caused poor sleep, but the results were consistent with previous studies that found that pet ownership negatively affected sleep quality.
Lead study author Lauren Wisnieski, an assistant professor of Public Health and Research at Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee, noted that the study didn’t look at where people’s pets slept. For example, is a dog taking up all the space on the bed? Is a cat curling up right next to the pet owner’s head?
That would be a good direction for future studies, she said, “to ask owners more about where their pets sleep and how those pets are disrupting their sleep.”
Lieve van Egmond, a sleep researcher at the Uppsala Sleep Science Laboratory in Sweden, noticed that her sleep changed when she got her kitten, Bacco. She looked into the relationship between pets and sleep quality while earning her doctorate. She was not involved with the new study, but did lead a separate study that also used self-reported data to examine how pets may affect sleep.
In that study, published in 2021, van Egmond and her team found that having a cat was associated with a shorter night’s sleep, but having a dog was not linked to changes in sleep. Still, she noted that more research would need to be done to establish whether the findings were a coincidence, or if pets were truly causing sleep issues.
She said the association found in the new study likely has more to do with owning a pet—and the many different factors tied to that unique cat or dog—rather than where those pets sleep.
With dogs, she said, it depends a lot on the breed and the activity level it needs. Making sure a pet gets plenty of physical activity and mental stimulation during the day and working with its natural instincts can help animals — and their owners — get better rest.
Unlike dogs, cats tend to have bursts of energy at night, van Egmond said. That was certainly the case for Bacco, who would run circles around her apartment and, even if her bedroom door was shut, would wake her up by scratching at it to be let in, she said.
She eventually consulted a cat behavioral specialist and learned that if she played with Bacco before she was ready for bed, she would activate the cat’s hunting instinct. By being fed after that, Bacco would feel that he had successfully hunted his food and was rewarded with a nice meal in return. His natural instinct after that was to groom himself and go to sleep—just as van Egmond was getting ready for bed herself.
The new study “indicates that pets can influence your sleep, but we have to really take into account that pets are much more than a facilitator or inhibitor of sleep. They are part of the family,” she said.
Still, people can use this information to evaluate why they may not be getting enough rest, she said. “If they have pets and they have poor sleep, they should look at where this is coming from,” van Egmond said. If it is the pet, “see where the bottleneck is and how you can make it so the cat or dog will not interrupt you when you are sleeping.”
Research contact: @NBCNews