Pets have improved the lives of those living with chronic pain and can help alleviate the depression that comes with it. There’s no doubt that having a pet or interacting with a trained therapy animal can help reduce and alleviate the pain and improve the quality of life.
Animals and the companionship they offer seems to be a natural pain reliever, and significant research supports this theory. Here are some ways that our pets can help us live optimal lives even with chronic pain.
Ways Pets Can Relieve Pain
Our pets allow us to feel less stressed out. Research has shown even for those that are not into pets, that petting a dog for ten-fifteen minutes reduces cortisol, which is a stress hormone. In a journal for pain, researchers studied the effects of quick therapy dog visits at a pain management clinic. Over 2-months they compared the individuals’ feelings of:
Tremendous improvements were reported for pain, state of mind, and other measures of stress among the individuals after the dog visit. Improvements were also seen in family, friends, and staff after the therapy dog visits.
They Generate More Activity
Specifically, dog owners seem to be healthier than those without a dog. Cats are great but when it comes to activity/fitness, dogs require regular walks, which makes owners get up, go outside and move around. Walking a dog can help:
- Improve balance
- Combat fatigue
- Improve flexibility
- Reduce joint pain
- Increase strength
- Manage weight
Being active combined with walking helps to get a better night’s sleep and reduced pain.
They Make Us Feel Better Without Medication
Research has shown how the proper attitude impacts treatment outcomes. With a positive attitude, an individual is more likely to stick with a long-term pain treatment plan. Petting and playing with a furry friend can be the perfect medicine creating an improved mood literally relieving pain and reducing the need for pain meds.
They Distract The Pain Away
Individuals living with chronic pain are constantly thinking about it. Having a pet changes the focus from pain to joy and happiness. With a pet to care for gives the day structure and life purpose. Pets need attention and because of their lovability are hard to ignore.
This type of therapy is a legitimate option for chronic pain management. With the problems associated with opioids, doctors and patients are looking for alternative ways to treat pain. The American Academy of Family Physicians reports that nonpharmacological therapies, like animal-assisted therapy, are now included in chronic pain treatment plans. Other options for pain relief include:
- Cognitive behavior therapy
- Chiropractic manual therapy
- Diaphragmatic breathing
- Guided imagery
- Mindfulness-based stress reduction
Example: An individual has a pain syndrome/condition. When the pain flares up the individual becomes irritable and upset. The individual has a dog that recognizes these feelings. The dog comes over and starts playing, licking, etc. The individual picks up the dog, calming the individual, helping change the mood, and ease the pain.
Owning a pet is a real responsibility, for those who are not interested in adopting, there are still benefits from pet medicine. Some ideas to consider:
- Perhaps a family member or friend owns a pet that could have regular visits. This would be a good way to get a feel for the experience and see what it’s like to have a pet without committing.
- Cats are an option if dogs are not your cup of tea. This could be because of allergies or residing in a location that does not permit them. Cats offer companionship along with the same psychological benefits as dogs. However, there is not much activity since they don’t need to be walked. But they still need to play/pretend hunt.
- Try spending time at a pain management clinic that has an animal therapy program. Some of these clinics allow individuals to spend time with a therapy dog a few times per week. These are usually 15-minute sessions.
- Unable to locate a clinic in the area, try looking into other organizations that could provide therapy animals and programs. Local vets and animal shelters can be a good source of information for animal therapy programs.
Therapy and Service Dogs Are Not the Same
When it’s time you might be ready for a dog of your own. Before searching the local shelter’s website, consider everything that comes with pet ownership. Factor in costs like:
- Veterinary care
- Behavior classes
Think about the size of the animal and if you can safely manage a small or large pet. Remember this is a therapy for individuals with a health condition of chronic pain. An individual needs to be able to see what they can take given their level of pain at any given time.
If you’ve never owned a pet, there needs to be an understanding that housebreaking a pet can be quite a time-consuming and exhausting task. This could add more stress and worsen the pain.
It is important to remember that therapy dogs do not have the same training as assistance or service dogs. Service dogs are trained to perform and assist with specific tasks to help an individual that has a disability. This could be a seeing-eye dog helping their blind owner. Also, service dogs live with their owners and are granted special access to public places like planes, restaurants, places of business, etc.
The American Kennel Club defines therapy dogs as dogs that can accompany their owners to volunteer in schools, hospitals, and nursing homes where they work together as a team to improve the lives of other people.
There are definitely medical benefits to having pets in our lives. However, don’t expect them to remove chronic pain overnight. Pets are another tool that can bring relief and improve the quality of life for individuals living with pain.
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