Our bed is pretty crowded at night. My husband and I share our bed with a couple of cats, including one who likes to stretch out on the pillows above our heads, and a small dog who despite her diminutive size manages to claim a sizeable chunk of the lower bed as her own.

Our animals love each other and we love them. It’s a happy sleep nest. But I often wonder: should we be sleeping with all these critters?

Whether or not we should sleep with our pets, a great many of us are doing it. Research shows that more than half of all pet owners share their bedrooms with their animals.

At least for most pet people, that’s not hard to understand. Our companion animals provide us comfort, stress relief, love and attachment all day long. Why not keep the cuddles and companionship going at bedtime?

There are a number of scientifically-demonstrated benefits associated with being close to and sleeping with our animals. (Most of the studies that explore the pet-person dynamic deal specifically with dogs.)

Cuddling with our pets at night may:

Boost levels of hormones serotonin and oxytocin, which both play a role in helping us sleep. (Serotonin helps the body make melatonin. Oxytocin, a hormone that strengthens emotional attachments, also works to ease physical pain.)

Reduce levels of the hormone cortisol, which stimulates alertness and stress

Lower blood pressure. Studies show being close with our animals causes a drop in blood pressure. That’s good for us in general!  

 Increase our sense of comfort and security. This won’t be a surprise to pet lovers—sleeping with pets makes many of us feel more relaxed, comforted, and secure as we drift off.

So, what’s the downside of sleeping with pets?

Well, there’s the paw in the face, and the jockeying for position our pets do that might keep you from sleeping soundly. In a study at the Mayo Clinic’s Center for Sleep Medicine, about 20 percent of people who shared a bedroom with animals said their pets created disruption to their sleep. Forty-one percent reported that having their pets in their bedroom had either no effect, or was beneficial to their sleep. pug dog in the bed

Another Mayo Clinic study released last year suggested that having a dog sleep in the bedroom had no negative effect on sleep quality—but that sharing a bed with your dog might interfere with sleep quality.

There’s also the risk of allergies and germs, which could interfere with sleep and put us at risk for illness. Allergy-stimulating particles (think dander, fur and dirt) can make sleep more difficult in people sensitive to these substances. And the critters that sometimes live on our pets (think fleas and ticks) carry risks of disease.

Physicians and sleep specialists recommend people with allergies protect themselves accordingly in order to sleep well—and that may mean not sleeping with pets in the bed. They also recommend making sure your pets are making routine visits to the vet and protected against ticks and fleas.

Who shouldn’t sleep with pets?

People with compromised immune systems, who are more vulnerable to illness and disease that might spread from close contact with pets. And very young children, who are also more vulnerable to germs and illness that can be transferred from animals.

But health professionals say that for most of us, sleeping with pets is generally safe. The choice comes down to a personal one, and whether the presence of Whiskers or Fluffy in bed is more of a sleep-booster than a sleep-detractor.

Written by Caitlin Reynolds