Chronic pain can not only be debilitating but isolating. We often feel miserable, so getting out, as we know we should, doesn’t happen as much as needed. It can be terribly lonely when all you have to think about is your pain and what you can’t do. Having a pet to look after can help shift focus away from the pain. Most pet owners will tell you how their furry family members provide companionship, unconditional love and joy. For those with chronic pain, pets can also provide comfort and even help with pain management.
Animals play an important role in many people’s lives. In addition to seeing-eye dogs and dogs that can be trained to detect seizures, animals can also be used in occupational therapy, speech therapy, or physical rehabilitation to help patients recover. Aside from these designated therapeutic roles, animals are valued as companions, which can certainly affect the quality of our lives.
Research has shown that pets can be pain relievers. Clinical trials prove that therapy dogs can reduce pain in children and adults. Elaine Lust, MD, and associates, monitored medication usage in adults aged 24 to 60 years living at a rehabilitation facility for patients with brain or spinal cord injuries, degenerative diseases or severe physical disabilities (Lust et al., 2007). Patients noted that the facility’s therapy dog – 18-month old collie Neil – gave them a positive distraction from their own problems and worries. In fact, the amount of painkillers patients used dropped by 48 percent after Neil joined the facility.
Pets can give us a reason to get up in the morning and get moving. The little creatures need us to take care of them. Walks through the neighborhood not only provide needed exercise, but also encourage the opportunity to get to know the neighbors and make new friends at dog parks. According to the Delta Society, a non-profit organization that promotes human health through the use of animals, studies show pets decrease feelings of depression, loneliness, and isolation. Pets may also be able to do your heart some good- they are credited with lowering blood pressure and cholesterol.
When it comes to chronic pain, pets can help in many ways:
Animals make us feel less stressed:
Even if you aren’t passionate about pooches, research has shown that just 10 to 15 minutes of petting a dog reduces the amount of cortisol (a stress hormone) circulating in the body. In the journal Pain Medicine, researchers studied the effects of brief therapy dog visits at a pain management clinic. Over a 2-month period, they compared self-reported feelings of pain, fatigue and distress from 295 therapy dog visits (235 with patients, 34 with family/friends and 26 with staff) to 96 animal-free waiting room visits. Significant improvements were reported for pain, mood and other measures of distress among patients after the therapy dog visit but not the waiting room control. Improvements were also seen in family/friends and staff after therapy dog visits.
Having a pet makes us more active and increased activity may reduce pain:
Dog owners in particular tend to be healthier than those who don’t own a canine. Sorry, cat lovers, but most dogs require regular walks, forcing their owners to get exercise. Walking your dog may help you control your weight, increase strength and flexibility, improve balance, reduce joint pain and combat fatigue. Walking and being active also contributes to a better night’s sleep and less pain.
Aids in a better nights sleep:
Sleep is an essential human requirement, which, for many people with chronic pain, is a significant challenge. To date, most advice, about how to improve sleep takes a fairly simplistic approach to managing sleep problems in the presence of a pet; according to the American Sleep Association, remove the pet. However, removing distractions is only one of many of sleep hygiene principles. Sleep hygiene also stresses the importance of daytime activity, daylight exposure, stress reduction, and daily routines. Several research studies show numerous examples of how having dogs accomplishes all these recommendations both physically and psychologically. Increased daytime activity with a pet, maintaining a routine to care for the pet, stress/anxiety reduction, and a sense of safety and companionship all fulfill the suggestions for better sleep hygiene. Pet dogs may play important roles in helping people with chronic pain achieve sleep onset and maintenance. Removing the dog to improve sleep could be counter-productive and lead to additional sleep-related issues. (I for one can’t agree more! The comfort my babies bring me at night far outweigh any possible negatives.)
Animals make us feel better without medication:
Science has shown that attitude can impact our approach to treatment. If you feel positive, you are more likely to adhere to a long-term pain management plan. Having a fury friend can be just what the doctor ordered since an improved mood literally dulls your pain, reducing the need for pain medications.
Pets can relieve pain:
This has been demonstrated in hospitalized patients who had a visit from an animal and reported less pain simply from one visit. In fact, Loyola University Chicago researchers found that people who underwent joint replacement surgery used less pain medication when they received pet therapy. One American Journal of Critical Care study found that patients hospitalized for heart failure had improved cardio functioning when visited by a dog. The simple task of caring for a pet can also be a positive distraction for people in pain. But perhaps the best help comes from those dogs or cats that seem to be super sensitive to people who don’t feel well.
Sometimes just their presence can make you feel better, I know mine do.
Soothing heat for chronic pain:
A type of Mexican hairless dog called a Xolo (Xoloitzcuintli) is known for generating intense body heat. An organization called Paws for comfort trains Xolos to be service dogs for people with fibromyalgia and other forms of chronic pain that respond to heat. People get relief when they put their hurting limbs against the dog’s body or lay next to it. Some dogs have even been trained to ride around wrapped around the neck of a person with chronic pain!
Animal assured therapy can be a non-pharmacological option for the management of chronic pain:
As providers we are always looking for alternative ways to treat pain. The American Academy of Family Physicians reported that non-pharmacological therapies, such as animal-assisted therapy, are a vital part of current chronic pain management plans. (Other options will be discussed later).
What We Can Learn From Our Pets:
Look at your furry friends – some behaviors that come naturally to dogs and cats could also help with chronic pain:
– Stretching is important
– Maintain a healthy weight
– Don’t underestimate the importance of sleep
– Take pleasure in the little things life offers
Therapy Dogs Aren’t Service Dogs:
After working with therapy dogs, you may decide you’d like to own a dog of your own. But before you start scrolling through your local shelter’s website, consider the drawbacks of pet ownership. Factor in costs such as veterinary care, behavior training, food and shelter when/if you travel. Give some thought to the size of the pet and whether or not you can safely manage a small or large animal given your particular health condition and level of pain. Also, if you’ve never owned a dog, you should understand that house-breaking a puppy can be a time-consuming and exhausting task that can add to the stress of managing your pain.
Therapy dogs are not the same as service dogs. Service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks to help a person who has a disability such as a seeing eye dog who assists an owner who is blind. Unlike therapy dogs, service dogs stay with their owner and have special access in public places such like airplanes and restaurants. The American Kennel Club (AKC) defines therapy dogs as canines who accompany their owners to volunteer in settings such as schools, hospitals and nursing homes. Therapy dogs and their owners work together as a team to improve the lives of other people. The AKC certifies therapy dogs.
Obedience and agility training:
For those of us with chronic pain it’s even more imperative to have obedient, trained pets. The last thing we want is an unruly dog tripping us, chasing after another animal, jumping on us, or playing too aggressively.- putting us in vulnerable situations where we could be hurt. My cocker spaniel almost killed me when he playfully jumped on my stomach while I was lying in bed. Specific skill sets may also be worth investigating such as barking to get a family members attention if needed, or retrieving an item. As I discussed in Mondays post, Sasha owner of Paw Prints, has been a invaluable member of out family, guiding us through our pets training needs.
Life wouldn’t be the same without my loving sweethearts by my side. They’ve gotten me through a lot of tough times and enrich my life daily. They don’t care how I look, what I’m wearing, how slow I walk, whether I need a cane that day, or if I wake them at 3 AM. They only care that I show up and love them as much as they love me. Who could ask for a better companion?
Read here for ideas on where you can get help adopting a pet.