Why do dogs scratch their bed? Vet reveals the 6 most common reasons

Dog lying in bed
(Image credit: Getty Images)

We all have our quirky bedtime rituals, but why do dogs scratch their beds before they lay down to sleep? If you're anything like most pet parents, it's a question you've found yourself asking on more than one occasion as you watch your pup dig and scratch their favorite sleep spot before they settle down for the night. 

However, while all that scratching may seem destructive, it's perfectly natural. Also known as 'denning', dogs scratch for all sorts of reasons and it's usually nothing to worry about. That being said, if you've invested in one of the best dog beds and your pup seems intent on destroying it, we understand you being none too keen on this behavior. 

That potential issue aside, scratching their bed is simply one of those funny things dogs do that we humans often struggle to understand! Keen to learn more, we spoke to expert vet Dr. Rebecca MacMillan who explained the reasons dogs scratch their bed and whether there's anything you can do to put a stop to it.

rebecca macmillan
Dr. Rebecca MacMillan

Rebecca is a vet surgeon who graduated from the Royal Veterinary College in 2009. She has a wealth of experience in first opinion small animal practice, having done a mixture of day-to-day routine work, on-call emergency duties and managerial roles over the years. She enjoys medicine in particular and she is proud to have recently achieved a BSAVA postgraduate certificate in small animal medicine (with commendation). She writes on various feline and canine topics, including behavior, nutrition, and health. Outside of work and writing she enjoys walking her own dog, spending time with her young family and baking!

Why do dogs scratch their bed?

The habit of dogs scratching at their beds is caused by a combination of natural and evolved behaviors, all of which are telling your dog that scraping and pawing their sleep space is the right thing to do. Here are the 6 most common reasons why dogs scratch at their beds before laying down for the night.

1. Natural instinct

Scratching and circling are two of those weird things dogs do that are completely normal

In the wild, dogs evolved to dig and scratch at their intended sleeping site to make it more comfortable to lie in. Piling up leaves, moving sticks, and getting rid of sharp stones would give them a more comfortable place to rest. This scratching and circling behavior to clear a space has become such a natural instinct that they still do this even on comfortable blankets and soft bedding.  

"Digging is one of your dog’s natural instincts," MacMillan confirms. "Their wild ancestors would have dug a den or a shallow hole in the ground to lie in for security and warmth. Digging or scratching at their bed replicates this same behavior."

2. Territorial behavior

Dogs don't just mark their territory by leaving little messages to each other by urinating on mailboxes and car wheels, they also do it by using scent glands which are located on their paws. 

"A dog’s paws contain scent glands, so scratching can be a way of marking territory. While we won’t be able to smell this, animals with sensitive noses can," explains MacMillan.

Scratching and pawing release these scents on their intended sleeping area, signaling to other dogs that it is already owned and should be left alone. This is why you may see an increase in dog bed scratching when a new person or pet is introduced to your dog's household.

3. Stress and anxiety

"Stress or anxiety in dogs may cause excessive scratching. This may be a way of self-soothing or distracting themselves from the situation," says MacMillan.

Digging out a nest or den to sleep in in the wild would help dogs to conceal themselves from potential predators. This hiding instinct is why dogs will so often burrow into their bedding, leaving just their nose peeking out of their newly created blanket fort. 

Try not to discourage this as hiding like this makes your furry friend feel safe and calm, not to mention making them look rather cute! 

And if you're worried this may be the reason behind your pup scratching their bed, here are eight reasons why your dog is anxious (and how to help them)

4. Body temperature

Why do dogs scratch their bed? Chihuahua asleep in bed

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Dogs have learned that if they dig a shallow burrow in the earth it will provide access, depending on the heat of the day, to warmer or cooler soil. You don't need to dig down far to find soil at a different temperature than that on the surface – often scratching away the top layer is enough to get to it. 

This behavior helps them regulate their body temperature by helping them cool down on hot days or find a warmer place to lie on colder ones. This is also why they burrow into leaves as this lets them find a place to escape harsh weather and temperatures. 

"Some dogs scratching behavior varies according to the temperature in the environment," MacMillan confirms. "In the winter months scratching may occur more as the dog tries to get their bed into a warm, den-like configuration. In the summer months, a quick scratch to get any extra blankets out of their bed is usually enough."

If you notice your dog scratching their bed more on hotter days, maybe provide a fan to help them cool down. You can see more methods on how to make your dog more comfortable on warm days in our vet's guide on how to cool down a dog

5. A learned habit

If your dog has never scratched at or circled their bed before, but starts after another dog enters their home, as well as marking their territory, this new habit could be that your dog has seen the new dog behaving this way and has learned to do it themselves. Dogs love copying other dogs, so it may just be a new 'trick' they've learned from this new and interesting furry friend!

6. Maternal instinct

If you have a pregnant pooch you may notice a sudden increase in bed-digging behavior. Female dogs dig and scratch holes for their puppies in the wild, and this has carried over into domesticated dogs. They are just looking to provide a place for their offspring to stay warm, safe, and hide in. Some female pooches will do this even if they aren't pregnant to practice for when they are.

How do I stop my dog scratching their bed?

Dog lying in bed looking at camera

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Here we have some bad news for you; it's very hard to prevent innate behavior like the digging antics of your pooch before bedtime. Although this behavior can be learned, it's very hard to discourage it. It's also a behavior your dog will find calming, so teaching them it is wrong may increase their anxiety levels.

"Scratching and digging are normal dog behaviors so it will not be possible to stop them altogether," says MacMillan. "Unless it is causing any problems it is usually best to turn a blind eye to his bed-scratching antics. However, if it is excessive or causing problems then you could try burning off your dog’s excess energy before bed. An evening walk or some playtime with the best dog toys may help some pets settle more quickly for sleep. 

You should also keep your dog’s nails trimmed to an appropriate length to lessen the risk of him damaging his bed and avoid having too many toys or chews in there, which could further encourage him to dig and scratch. 

Finally, you should praise your pup when he is calm and settling in bed nicely. Don’t tell him off for scratching, as this will just reward the behavior with attention and could encourage him to do it more. It may also make him feel anxious and confused, as scratching is a natural dog activity."

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$95.96 from Chewy
Providing your pup with the ultimate in cozy comfort, this memory foam bed comes with a medium-firm base for outstanding back and joint support, and an anti-tear outer cover. 

Looking for the answers to more of those puzzling canine-related questions? Check out 'why does my dog lick the bed?' and 'why do dogs love belly rubs?' to help you better understand your fur friend. 

Jamie Middleton

Jamie Middleton is a freelance editor and writer who has been editing and creating content for magazines and websites for over 20 years. As well as writing about the pets he loves, he has helped create websites about tech and innovation like TechRadar.com, Innovate UK and TechSPARK, written programmes for music festivals, books on inventions and architecture, TV listings magazines, and edited publications about cars such as Lexus, Toyota and Jaguar. In his spare time he writes fiction books and poetry - or at least he does when he is permitted to by his cat Pirate, who enjoys the warmth of laptops too much to allow being creative to get in the way.

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