The contemporary word for pets – companion animals – defines their role clearly. We take dogs and cats (and increasingly, rabbits, and others) into our homes as sentient creatures whose company we enjoy. Our time spent with our pets illustrates how they have become companions who add value to our lives, whether the pleasure of taking a dog for a walk, the comfort of having a purring cat on your lap, or the entertainment of watching a rabbit hop around the living room.
However, their company is not always so pleasurable. When your dog starts barking at three in the morning or your cat wakes you at five o’clock with incessant miaows, it can be very distressing. Sleepless nights don’t suit any of us.
So what can we do to reduce the risk of our pets sharing their wakefulness with us? What can we do to ensure that they – and we- sleep soundly through the night?
First, and most obviously, make sure that your pet has a comfortable bed. If your pet always sleeps undisturbed, you may not need to worry about double-checking this, but if they are restless, it’s well worth reviewing their comfort. Inspect their sleeping area carefully: would you sleep on it yourself? Is it bumpy, with irregularities and protruding pressure points? If so, consider a memory foam pet bed (such as the Orvis range).
These are so comfortable that you’d happily sleep on them yourself if the bed was big enough. A top notch pet bed is not cheap, but what price would you place on a good night’s sleep? Choose a bed that comes with an outer cover that can be taken off easily to be cleaned, and preferably order two covers: bedclothes hygiene is just as important for pets as it is for ourselves.
Second, what about your pet’s sleeping temperature? If they sleep in a heated room in your house, they may be snug enough, but ageing pets, especially, appreciate extra warmth. My parents’ elderly cat, Astra, was a restless sleeper until we installed a plug-in electric heater pad under her bed. The small amount of extra heat was enough to keep her curled up until after my parents had risen every morning. Making sure a pet has a cosy, warm sleeping place is important.
Third, if your pet wakes up in the night, can they see around them? Animals can be afraid of the pitch-dark, just like ourselves. In particular, older pets often suffer from mild cognitive disorder – the equivalent of human Alzheimer’s – causing them sometimes to feel confused. The signs of this can be subtle, until they wake in darkness in the middle of the night, when they express their anxiety by barking, miaowing or just being generally agitated.
I know several instances of night-time agitation that have been solved by the simple measure of plugging in a nightlight close to the pet’s bed, so that if they wake up in the early hours, they can see enough around them to reassure them. Repeated episodes of night-time distress have been completely sorted after setting this up.
Fourth, establish a regular routine around bedtime. Animals love routines, just as we humans do. As an example, my two dogs go to bed around 10pm: beforehand, they go out for a short walk, then as they come in through the back door, I say “Time for bed”, and they both jump into their beds and look at me. I say “Time to brush your teeth!” and give each of them a dental chew treat (which they love to eat, and I love because it cleans their teeth). I then shut the door, and go to bed myself.
They sleep soundly until the morning, when the sound of the kettle in the kitchen is the sign to them that the new days is starting. The dogs know these routines, and the different steps happen almost automatically, without any of us thinking about it. If your pets are restless at night, a regular, predictable routine is an important part of starting their sleeping period well.
Fifth, protect your pet from night time disturbances, of which many are possible. From fireworks to mice scuttling behind skirting boards to early morning milkmen, pets have sensitive hearing and can be roused and irritated by many small sounds. I recall one dog owner who was convinced that his dog was being woken by the presence of a ghost. This was impossible to prove (or disprove), but the main message remains the same: try to isolate your pets’ sleeping area from all disturbances, as much as possible. It may help to leave a radio on, playing gentle classical music, to drown out possible upsetting sounds.
Sixth, make sure that your pet is in top health. Many illnesses can disturb animals’ sleep, from urinary tract infections to inflammatory bowel disease, from coughing to itching. If your pet is unwell in the daytime, they’re more likely to have disturbed sleep at night.
Seventh, and finally, if you do all of the above, and your dog still has disturbed sleep (which is disturbing you and perhaps your neighbours), do talk to your vet. In some cases (for example, in elderly dogs with dementia), nightly anti-anxiety type medication may sometimes be needed. Every case is different, and you need to discuss the details of such situations with your vet.
Sleep is important, for us all, human and animal alike. If you, or anyone in your house (or your neighbour’s house) is close to saying “It’s me or the dog (or cat)”, then do talk to your vet. Night-time agitation is a solvable problem.