Healing Power of Man’s Best Friend—and Cats, too/Pets Can Be Powerful Medicine

Written by Steven Richeimer, MD
In my practice as a pain management specialist, I've heard numerous accounts of pets improving the lives of patients living with chronic pain and diminishing the depression that often accompanies it. It's the same story replayed repeatedly and there's no doubt in my mind that having a pet—or interacting with a trained therapy dog or cat—can improve a pain patient's quality of life. Animal companionship is a natural pain reliever, and a substantial body of research supports this theory. — Steven Richeimer, MD

Here are some ways that our four-legged friends can help us to live better with chronic pain.

5 Ways Pets Can Relieve Chronic Pain

1. 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.1 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.

2. Having a pet makes us more active and increased activity may reduce pain.2,3
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.

3. Animals make us feel better without medication.
Science has shown that attitude can impact our approach to treatment.3 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. Aside from companionship, pets provide opportunities for socializing with others—online via popular chat groups such as Facebook for Cat Lovers and offline at dog parks or when walking through the neighborhood.

4. Animals distract us from pain in a good way.
Having a pet to care for can give your day structure and your life purpose. Staying in bed until noon isn't an option when a pet lives with you—unless you want to clean up a mess. Many patients who live with chronic pain are consumed with constant thoughts about it. Having a dog or cat in your life changes the focus from pain to something that brings joy and happiness.3 Pets need attention and are hard to ignore.

5. Animal-assisted therapy is a legitimate nonpharmacological option for the management of chronic pain.
Given today's awareness of the problems of associated with prescribed opioids, doctors and patients are seeking alternative ways to treat pain. The American Academy of Family Physicians reported that nonpharmacological therapies, such as animal-assisted therapy, are a vital part of current chronic pain management plans.4 (Other options cited for short-term pain relief include: cognitive behavior therapy; hypnosis; guided imagery; diaphragmatic breathing; mindfulness-based stress reduction; acupuncture; combination manipulation and manual therapy.)

How to Get More Animal Time in Your Life
If you don't currently own a pet and aren't interested in adopting one just yet, you can still benefit from pet power. Here are some ideas:

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 task 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.5

Clearly there are benefits to having animals in our lives but don't expect them to magically get rid of your chronic pain overnight. Pets are one more tool that has been shown to bring relief and improve the quality of life for many patients living with pain.

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What is Chronic Pain?