Every night for the last year, Kathy Ruttenberg has been taking a bath, putting on pyjamas, turning on CNN and getting into bed with a little pig named Trixie.
“She’s a great cuddler if you lie still,” said Ruttenberg, a 53-year-old artist who lives near Woodstock, New York. “But if you’re restless, she gets annoyed, and her hooves are very sharp.”
Ruttenberg has the black-and-blue marks to show for it. Still, of all the animals she has in her bed (there are also two kittens and three terriers, to be precise), Trixie, a 7-kilogram Vietnamese pot-bellied pig, is her favourite, because of the way she spoons.
“I have an Angora rabbit, too,” Ruttenberg said. “But he’s on the floor running around because the other animals don’t allow him up. We have a hierarchy in our bedroom.”
Ruttenberg’s habit of sleeping with pets mirrors that of Paris Hilton, who has slept with a pig – of the four-legged variety – and was once bitten at her home at 3 a.m. by a kinkajou, a tiny raccoon-related creature. Keeping that sort of menagerie may be unusual, but the habit of allowing animals in bed is not. Figures vary, but according to a recent study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 14 percent to 62 percent of the 165 million dogs and cats in this country sleep in bed with humans, with other surveys skewing higher.
The reasons are well documented. First, touching, human or otherwise, raises levels of oxytocin in the body, creating feelings of contentment. And, of course, the comfort that an unconditionally loving animal provides in bed is an emotional balm, especially for the depressed, lonely or anxious.
“Animals are uncomplicated and keep us in the present tense,” said Mark Doty, the author of a memoir called “Dog Years,” which chronicles the death of a lover. “When Wally could barely move, I saw him lifting his hand to reach over and pet Beau, our young retriever, who was curled up next to him. He couldn’t even feed himself, but he had the strength and will to give comfort to a dog at his side. It was remarkable.”
It’s no surprise that pet owners like Doty seem unconcerned about the study published in February by the CDC, in which two California doctors warn that allowing pets to sleep in the bed can be dangerous and can spread zoonoses (pronounced zoh-AN-ee-sees), pathogens that go from animals to people.
According to Bruno Chomel, a professor at the University of California at Davis, and Ben Sun of the California Department of Public Health, the risks are rare, but real. They cite instances of fleas from cats transmitting bubonic plague and fleas from dogs spreading chagas in South America, with symptoms of mild fever and fatigue. Cat scratch fever is a danger, too, they say, as are various forms of meningitis, Pasturella pneumonia and other infections.
“We know these are just the tip of the iceberg,” said Chomel, who said he has owned dogs and cats, but has never allowed them in the bedroom. “There are risks and precautions to take. But we aren’t telling people not to be close to their pets.”
That’s a good thing, because kicking pets out of bed isn’t likely to be an option for many people. First of all, it’s difficult to retrain animals once they have established a routine. Erica Lehrer and Richard Goldman of Houston learned that when they tried to keep their three cats out of the bedroom after installing an expensive black carpet.
“They staged a protest: cried all night, pounded with their cat paws on the door,” said Lehrer, 52, a writer. After three sleepless nights, she said: “They won and moved back in. We bought a really good vacuum cleaner.”
At least their cats are indoor animals. That means there is less risk of having mice and other critters deposited in the bed. Staying indoors, like most city cats do, also reduces the risk of fleas, ticks and other potential disease carriers.
Which brings us to dogs. Could all the dirt they walk through and bring into bed be a risk to health as well as to housekeeping?
“I’d say, just wipe them down and you’ll be fine,” said Lucy O’Byrne, a veterinarian at the West Village Veterinary Hospital in New York. “As long as you have good flea and tick control, and keep your pet healthy the way most people do, you don’t have to worry.”
Chomel, author of the CDC study, doesn’t disagree. There is far more risk, he warned, with pet licks and kisses. If you have a wound or if your immune system is compromised, licking should be avoided. (Meaning, don’t let the dog lick you – the hazards involved in the other way around have not been researched.) It’s also not good for babies. And there have been cases of animals spreading resistant strains of staph infections and other diseases by licking cuts and wounds after surgery, so it’s not recommended that pets be allowed in bed then.
“If the dog starts licking the baby too much, we discourage it,” said Alexandra Horowitz, author of the best-selling “Inside of a Dog,” and a psychology professor at Barnard, who sleeps with her toddler, husband and dog without worry. “But in general, if you’re a dog person, you live with dirt and other things that come in benign and less benign forms. I think the health risks are overstated. I say that if it’s mutually agreeable, just as it is between two people, then sharing a bed with a dog is fine.”
Even Cesar Millan, the hard-nosed dog trainer known for his TV series “The Dog Whisperer,” agrees, although he believes the dog should be invited up each night, just to show it who’s the real leader of the pack.
“Then choose the portion of the bed where the dog sleeps,” he writes in his book “Cesar’s Way.” “Sweet dreams.”
Sometimes, however, sweet dreams are not an option, as Tracy Rudd, an illustrator in New York, has discovered. One man she dated years ago picked up her growling, nipping Chihuahua and tossed her out of the bedroom, later to find his clothes soaked in urine. When Rudd, 47, met her current husband, she said she knew he was the one because when he put his arm around her in bed during the night, causing her dog to growl and nip at him, he didn’t seem to mind.
“He just said he respected her for defending her space,” Rudd said.
As a result, the dog respected him and a lasting marriage was born.
Perhaps one day it will be the same for Ruttenberg with her upstate menagerie. “Although I’m starting to think it’s not likely,” she said.
Most gentlemen callers don’t even make it to the bedroom. One bolted when Ruttenberg, who has a total of 160 animals on her sprawling mountainside property, let a baby goat into the living room after Trixie, the pig, had already joined the visit.
“I thought he would find a little goat charming,” she said. “But after the pig, it was too much for him. Especially as the goat, Iris, was leaving droppings on the floor.”
Bye-bye, boyfriend. Hello, love?
“The truth is, with all my animals around me, I feel loved here, and I always have someone to come home to and someone who misses me when I’m away,” said Ruttenberg, who grew up in New York and got her first pet, a dog, 20 years ago, after a terrible romantic breakup.
Ruttenberg’s mother frets her daughter has put herself in the permanent zone of marriage ineligibility. But Ruttenberg is too busy making art, having fun and cooking for her animals (baked potatoes, squash, scrambled eggs with truffle oil for the pigs) to worry about it. As for the health risks of letting the animals sleep in her bed, she’s more concerned with making them sick than catching something from them.
“I had the flu and called the vet to make sure I couldn’t give it to Trixie,” she said.
The vet told her not to worry, she said.