Pets help people manage chronic pain better. It’s not a maybe – it’s definite.
They’re not doctors or pharmacists. But they can fundamentally shift our hormonal and chemical functions for the better.
If you already have a pet that you love, then what I’m saying won’t come as a surprise. If you don’t have a pet, then you’re probably trying to understand if “pet therapy” is a real thing that works.
Yes, it does.
Pets have been part of our lives for thousands of years. They’ve been there to aid us, to love us and to protect us. So is it any surprise that these mindful beings are able to help us through sickness too?
Here’s what you need to know about how a pet can help reduce your chronic pain.
Besides the unconditional love and support. Here are some fascinating facts about how pets can benefit our health in general:
In Austria and Germany, studies have linked pet ownership to a decrease in doctor’s visits. Over the last 10 years, human health savings has raised to $3.86 billion.
According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, pets can help lower blood pressure, cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels and feelings of loneliness.
The CDC also put out a statement saying that people who own pets tend to be healthier than those who don’t because pets help us keep more active.
The American Heart Association released a scientific statement that associated having a pet with a reduced risk of heart disease and improved longevity.
Having a Pet Makes Us More Active – Which Can Reduce Pain
Sorry cat lovers, but this one for all the dog owners out there. By nature, most dogs are energetic and require interactive exercise.
Whether it’s going for walks, throwing the ball or any agility training – dogs need to keep active and they want to do it with you.
And the more you go out to get some fresh air, the more you begin to feel the benefits of getting some low-key exercise.
Personally, I enjoy doing some yoga while I run the dogs in our garden. If we’re at the park, then I’ll go for a nice long walk. No matter what – I have to take my dogs out almost every day.
How does this activity help reduce pain?
Lowers stress and blood pressure
When you get some exercise, it naturally helps lower your blood pressure and increases the release of your happy hormones (endorphins).
Endorphins are natural painkillers that help reduce our bodies’ stress levels (which in turn helps with chronic pain management too).
Another added benefit? Exercise can also help improve your mental clarity, focus and overall energy levels.
If you’re not one to exercise, then having a dog will make your active-time a lot more enjoyable. Instead of being in a closed gym, you can focus on having fun together instead.
Makes you sleepier at night
The more active you are during the day, the more likely it is that you’ll be tired in the evening. This can be very useful in helping you fall asleep when you get to bed.
Of course, this depends on a few things. If you push yourself too hard during the day and you’re in a lot of pain, you’re going to be wide awake by night time.
But if you get decent sleep – even if it’s just 2 hours – it can help you manage your pain threshold better the next day.
Directly benefits fibromyalgia
If you have fibromyalgia, then your doctor has already told you how important exercise is to manage your condition.
And it’s true!
Fibro symptoms, such as fatigue, brain fog, anxiety, muscle stiffness and joint pain can be alleviated with some low-intensity exercise.
This doesn’t mean you need to hit the gym at all. If your pain and fatigue are very bad, too much exercise can make it worse.
But something like walking your dog can be just what you need to keep your range of motion, muscle strength and aerobic conditioning stable.
A study taken from Pet Partners shows that fibromyalgia patients spending time with a therapy dog instead of in an outpatient waiting area at a pain management facility showed significant improvements in pain, mood and other measures of distress.
Gets you to focus on yourself
During the quiet moments that you are out with your dog, you get the opportunity to focus on yourself. You get to listen to your body and try to understand what it’s telling you.
Maybe you’ve been pushing yourself too hard and it feels exhausted. Or, maybe you aren’t pushing hard enough and you’ve got built up nervous energy.
Keeps you distracted while you meet new people and make new friends
You may be feeling lonely right now and it’s normal. Anyone with chronic pain goes through periods of isolation.
While you need time alone because you’re in pain and you’re exhausted, you’re still a human being who needs interaction and affection.
The trickiest thing about feeling lonely in these moments is that it can make your pain worse.
[Enter your pet.]
Whether it’s isolation, loneliness, social anxiety, or all the above – having a pet can do wonders to break this cycle.
Multiple studies have shown that pets help us create human-to-human friendships and give us social support.
Just walking your dog down the road means that someone is far more likely to approach you and say hi to your beautiful pooch.
Your mood is lifted as you build new relationships. Your social needs are more fulfilled. And best of all – this rush of happy hormones can subdue your pain quite a bit!
Animals Make us Feel Better Without Medication
It’s hard for people to understand that chronic pain means your condition needs to be managed and not cured.
And “managing” chronic pain often entails relying on chronic medication. It’s not something you want, but if it helps you lead a more stable life then you’re never going to turn it down.
Unfortunately, medication can wreak havoc on your body in the long run.
After years of being chronically medicated myself, I’ve had every gut, kidney, bladder, liver issue I can think of. I’ve also had side effects damage my skin, hair and even my nails. And let’s not forget about mood swings, cognitive function and energy levels.
For a more sustainable life, I've needed to rely on some non-pharmaceutical ways to manage chronic pain in the long-term. Today, I can say with confidence that my dogs have contributed a lot to my overall wellbeing.
Your pets are capable of improving daily function without medication
Many animals, primarily mammals, have nurturing personalities. They are designed to protect and care for those that they love.
When it comes to our pets, there is an ancient pre-existing bond between us (animal to human) that we’ve cultivated over thousands of years. The act of touching your pet and exchanging affection or warmth is so healing.
When you’re feeling sad, lonely, in pain, angry or hurt. Your dog is likely to be the first to try and help you because they picked up on it before anyone else.
From the day my Yorkie, Ivy, came home with me as a puppy – I was floored by her ability to understand my pain.
Not only does she knows when I am in the most pain. She knows where my pain is as well. I’ve never had to tell her. She’ll always lie on my body, but never where it hurts the most.
When I am:
- Sleeping, she’ll be quiet as a mouse
- Crying, she’ll try to lick my tears away.
- Sweating, she’ll move to my side.
- Scared, she’ll sit on my chest until my heart rate slows down.
- Agony, she’ll try to distract me by being playful.
And heaven forbid anyone walks into my room that she doesn’t know. She will make it very clear that I am not to be disturbed while I rest.
The research behind why your pets are an alternative to medication
Your pets can help improve these fundamental aspects of your chronic pain management:
- Stress levels or anxiety;
- Ability to cope with isolation and loneliness;
- General happiness;
- Basic mood management and mood swings;
- Ability to motivate yourself;
- Self-esteem that may have deteriorated;
- Cognitive functions such as attention span and language skills;
- Motor skills and joint movement;
- Assisted or independent movements; and
- Your overall outlook on life.
On a physiological level, pets can be this beneficial to us because they help:
- Reduce the release of stress hormones like (epinephrine and cortisol) that contribute to our sky-rocketing pain levels.
- Increase the release of your happy hormones (dopamine, serotonin and endorphins) which act as natural pain killers.
- Increase the release of our love hormone, oxytocin, which has been proven to protect our nervous systems in times of stress.
- Reduce your blood pressure and improve overall cardiovascular health because of the sensory relief they have on your body.
- Help lower your cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
- Boost and strengthen your overall immune system and susceptibility to infection.
Animals Distract Us From Pain in a Good Way
Beyond actually helping manage pain better. Your pet can distract you from the effects of chronic pain as well.
The premise of this is that you now have to care for someone that you love – that’s where your focus is going to lie.
Pets bring positive, happy, healthy and playful energy into your home and instantly shift the dynamic you used to have.
Dr Mary Janevic is an associate research scientist in Health Behaviour and Health Education at the University of Michigan. She has been leading some research on the benefits of pets in helping older people manage chronic pain.
Some of her research shows that:
- Because chronic pain sufferers are focused on their pet’s needs. It distracted them from their pain by keeping their minds off their bodies.
- The sheer joy and happiness that pets bring into one’s life is another great distraction. Pets were able to make the patients laugh and focus on light-hearted situations.
- Pets were not only able to distract the chronic pain patients from their pain. But they were able to motivate their owners to engage in daily activities. Be they social or professional.
Other research also shows that pets can be a great distraction from pain and anxiety at night time. It can even help improve the quality of your sleep and have “overwhelmingly positive” health effects.
Again, it boils down to the calming effects that the physical contact you share with your pet can have. Bed-time snuggles are a great way to soothe anxiety, promote deeper breathing, help with any loneliness you may be feeling and keep you warm!
They Help Us Establish Routine and Schedule
Chronic pain is a lifestyle disruptor. It messes with your sleep patterns, energy levels, mood and overall productivity. The hardest thing about this is the fact that it’s so difficult to get your routine back if these four fundamental aspects of your life are out of balance.
Once again, your pet can help you here.
And the fact that your pet can help you sleep better at night, ties in with why they can also help you establish a better routine.
Because our pets have a knack for setting a healthy routine for themselves.
My Yorkie that I mentioned earlier, Ivy, is the queen of routine. By 9:30 pm she is in bed and she is wide awake by 6:30 am the next day.
One evening, my mother could not get to sleep. So she went to the kitchen to make herself a cup of tea around 2 am.
At which time, Ivy got out of bed. Went to the kitchen. Scolded my mother for making so much noise. Before quickly scooting back to me and going straight back to sleep.
And in the mornings, I have a 3lb ball of energy tug on my hair and press her snoot against mine until I wake up.
My Yorkie's sass aside, the point I’m trying to make is that our pets are our responsibility. We want to look after them as best we can. And in doing so, we end up looking after ourselves in a better way too.
By waking up earlier in the morning, so do we get a kickstart to our day.
The responsibility we have to engage with our pets through physical activities such as playing or taking them for walks helps us keep healthier too. Especially given this is usually at specific times of the day, which reinforces a routine as well.
And finally, the fact that we have a lovable pet waiting for cuddles in bed every night makes it a lot easier to try and get some well-deserved rest after a long day.
With so much research behind why our pets are so good for chronic pain management, it’s no surprise that animal-assisted therapy is so popular too.
Yes, animal-assisted therapy is a legitimate non-pharmacological option for the management of chronic pain.
And it differs a little bit from having a pet.
Your pet, without any service-training, can be considered your emotional support animal. Although very important, it does not qualify as a therapy dog.
For a pet to qualify as a therapy animal, it needs to go through a certain amount of training and follow a very strict hygiene protocol for it to be allowed in hospitals, old age homes and around small children.
Therapy pets are not necessarily trained to fulfil certain tasks – they’re just super good at looking after people and making them feel better.
Service dogs, on the other hand, are dogs that go through a lot of training and various protocols to fulfil specific tasks. They aren’t just there to make your life easier – they are there because you need them to fulfil daily tasks.
As someone with chronic pain, you can get a service dog to help you lead a more normal life. I am currently training my pooch to be a service dog and have found it to be extremely rewarding.
The reason that I bring up animal-assisted therapy and service dogs is that having a pet is a lot of hard work.
Even if it’s extremely fulfilling, it’s not always practical.
What you need to remember before you adopt a dog
- Getting a puppy is hard work. From house training to puppy school, this is something that needs your dedication every day.
- Someone has to be able to care for the animal. So if you are too unwell to commit to such a routine – getting a pet may not be the best option. Someone has to take it out, feed it, bathe it and care for it.
- If you aren’t careful what you get – it may be the wrong animal for your house.
- Nevermind the fact that you may be more of a cat or dog person. Breeds have a huge influence on the personality of your pet.
- If you’re a low energy person with high energy, untrained dog – it’s going to make your life very difficult and disruptive.
Why animal-assisted therapy may be a better option
- Animal-assisted therapy gives you the option to interact with a well trained, lovable pet without the need to care for it 24/7.
- If you choose to adopt a therapy animal (most likely a dog), it will already be well trained and well kept. You can guarantee that the pet your getting will be the right fit for your household.
- Finally, if you choose to either adopt or train a service dog. You will not only have all the benefits of a true therapy dog – but your pooch will be able to help you lead a better day-to-day life as well.
- To give you an example. I am currently training my dog, Nala, to be an active service dog. She is learning to:
- Bring me my medication;
- Assist me in public so that I don’t need a walking stick; and
- Call for assistance if and when I need help.
I can assure you this requires all your dedication, but the benefits are unquestionable.
In the end, it’s important to evaluate your options carefully before you jump into getting a pet. Especially if you haven’t looked after animals in the past.
And if you ask me how my life has changed since my two wonderful dogs came into my life post-diagnosis – it’s been one of the best decisions I have ever made.
My house is dirtier, my wallet is emptier – but my heart is filled to the brim and my health has improved dramatically.