If you are a frequent reader of this column, you know that my life is busy. Besides being a veterinarian, I am the father of four human children and three four-pawed children.
It seems like I am always going and thus, tired. At first I thought it was the busy days, but then I began to realize most nights my sleep was being interrupted. It was not by Rease or Blakely, our 4-year-old twins, but by either Ollie, Inky or Flipper, our pets.
I was made all too aware of this several nights ago. The weather this past week has allowed us to cut off the air conditioning and open the windows. Around 2 a.m., several opossums decided to fight in a tree in our backyard. With the windows open, our dog Flipper could hear them and not resist running outside through his dog door. Being a hound mix, he also could not resist barking up at them. After 15 minutes of this, I rushed outside to stop him as I not only wanted to prevent my family from waking but my neighbors as well.
By the time it was over, I realized I had lost an entire hour of sleep.
More frequently, however, it was our cats Ollie or Inky who woke me at night. They love to sleep with us, especially when it is cool. I must admit I enjoy a cat purring on me as their little warm bodies are comforting. What I do not like is when they get up and reposition, jump down with a loud plop, use the litter box or scratch their claws in the middle of the night.
In my opinion, a baby's cry and a cat’s meow are close in how they affect my inner parenting instinct. They both make me immediately react and attempt to find a way to comfort the baby or cat so the crying or meowing stops.
As with all cats, Ollie and Inky occasionally have hairballs. When they vomit, they will vocalize. It seems like this occurs only between midnight and 5 a.m.
Ollie also enjoys his breakfast. Some mornings, he likes to eat before anyone is awake, so he will begin to vocalize to let us know he is hungry.
Dr. Henri Biannucci and I share a mutual feline patient. This cat was probably hit by a car prior to being found. The injuries required his right rear limb to be amputated and permanent neurological damage affecting the left rear leg and his ability to void.
Mom and Dad contacted me several weeks ago that he was waking them up at night, vocalizing and getting up and down from the bed. An exam found him to have a urinary tract infection. Not surprising since he is unable to completely empty his bladder. With treatment, he has settled down and Mom and Dad get a full night’s sleep.
The Mayo Clinic has studied human sleep and dogs. Initial studies found that over half of the patients seeking consultations at the sleep clinic were pet owners, many of whom complained of nightly sleep disturbances by their pets.
In a more recent study of 40 patients, they found a difference when dogs slept in the bed or in the room. A dog on her own bed in the bedroom did not significantly impact sleep while those in the bed with the humans did.
If your pet has recently begun to disrupt your sleep, have a veterinarian assess them to be sure they do not have a medical condition causing this new behavior. This is especially important if they are waking you up to drink more water or go outside to use the bathroom, when usually they have been able to make it through the entire night.
If you let your dog sleep in bed with you and they are waking you up, the only option is to change this behavior. When Flipper was a puppy, I let him sleep in bed with me. As he got older and larger, there was not enough room for both of us, so he would wake me up several times each night. I bought him a nice soft bed and started making him sleep beside me on the floor. This took about a week to stick as he would jump up onto the bed and I would put him back in his.
Another option is for you keep them out of your room entirely at night. Most parents do not allow their children to come in and out of their bedroom all night long, so why do we allow our pets? Just like our children, they are OK sleeping in a location away from us that is their own.
One of the hardest things for me is to not acknowledge when my pets vocalize. I instinctively want to help, but by responding, I am teaching them every time they speak, I will respond. When Ollie meows at 4 a.m. and I feed him, I am just reinforcing this behavior.
The only way to stop this was when I knew he was OK, I put a pillow over my head and ignored him. It took about 2 weeks, but he finally realized I was not getting up and the early feedings stopped.
Overall, pet ownership is great for your health. Lowering your blood pressure, reducing allergies in children and keeping you active are proven benefits. Just don’t let sleep deprivation offset these positives.