Leave the dogs in the bedroom: A recent Alberta study suggests sleeping with or near pets can improve rest for long-term chronic pain patients.

About 30 per cent of the population is sleep deprived. In industrialized countries like Canada, chronic pain has a 10 to 20 per cent prevalence rate. Estimates say as few as 50 per cent, and as many as 90 per cent, of these patients also experience sleep problems.

So as part of a larger University of Calgary study on the impact of dog ownership for people with chronic pain, the University of Alberta’s Cary Brown examined the specific impact of dogs on patient sleep.

Brown, a professor in the department of occupational therapy, interviewed a group of seven participants between the ages of 45 and 70 who had dealt with chronic pain for eight to 30 years. Among other questions, she asked: what effect, if any, has your dog had on your sleep?

According to Brown, the relationship between sleep and pain is “reciprocal.”

“Physiologically, pain and sleep are quite closely related in the neural pathways that they use. Basically, if you have pain, you’re obviously not as likely to sleep as well. But we know now those who are sleep deprived also experience pain more intensely,” Brown explained.

“The exciting part is, in the past, people used to think ‘treat the pain, and the sleep will take care of itself.’ But in the last 10 years, we’ve learned that people with sleep deficiency are at risk of developing chronic pain,” said Brown. “It’s a bidirectional relationship, so one influences the other.”

Brown found that the pet dogs offered several positive benefits, such as enforcing a routine, necessitating outdoor activity, and providing companionship.

“(The participants) were getting outside, they were walking, they were meeting strangers quite often—because dogs are good for that,” Brown said.

Some others felt more secure with their dog’s presence in the room or on the bed.

A few reported negative effects, such as the animal disturbing their sleep or getting up earlier than the patient.

A third group said concern for their dog’s rest made them take better care of themselves so as to not be the disturbing ones.

“Good practice will say remove animals from the bedroom. And the thinking is there are less distractions, less exposure to allergens,” said Brown. “But it’s not very sophisticated advice and doesn’t take into consideration the context of people’s lives, nor how important (pets have become) in people’s lives.”

“I think, a lot of people say this is just common sense, and I think they’re absolutely right. This is common sense and people who own dogs understand these relationships.”

However, Brown said a larger study of the pilot project could be beneficial when considering long-term care strategies or facilities that prohibit pets.

And although she recognizes owners have significant social and psychological relationships with pets of all kinds, the activity and attention required by dogs suggests a win for the canine team—at least until more research is done.