Pet Therapy and Chronic Pain

Meet Archie, my therapy dog

Meet Archie, my therapy dog

Chronic pain sufferers know that pain affects every part of your life.  It saps your energy and strength, decreases your motivation, prevents you from doing some of the things you could  before, makes it harder to get through the work day, interupts your sleep, and much more. Here are just a few stats on how living with chronic pain impacts your daily life:

  • Half of people with chronically painful conditions will have problems doing household chores
  • Half will miss out on important social activities
  • One in three people with chronic pain may have to change jobs because of pain

There are many ways to treat chronic pain. It turns out that our pets are pain relievers too.

Clinical trials have shown that therapy dogs can reduce pain in adults and children. There are trained therapy dogs, and even therapy cats and rabbits.  I don’t believe a dog needs special training to be a therapy dog.  I think most dogs are naturally born therapy dogs.  They give us unwavering love, are loyal, and comfort us when we’re sick, sad or in pain.  They also bring laughter into our life, and laughter is the best medicine.  My dog is a rescue.  He’s a 5-year-old cockapoo, a cocker spaniel/poodle mix. He has the intelligence of a poodle and the stubbornness of a cocker spaniel. He has a ton of personality and seems to know what you’re thinking and what you want him to do. He doesn’t always do what you want him to do though, hence the stubbornness.

My husband and I rescued Archie 4 and a half years ago.  His former owner was not a nice person.  When he developed Parvo as a puppy (which could’ve been prevented with an injection), the owner wanted to put him down instead of paying any vet bills.  Thankfully, the vet took him in and saved his life.  He nearly died from the Parvo, but he is a fighter and pulled through.  I fell in love with him the minute I saw him.  He was a disaster.  He’d never had his hair cut or washed.  He looked like a sheep dog, his hair was so long.  He was scared of people since he’d been in isolation for two months, kept in a metal kennel with small windows so he wouldn’t make the other animals sick.  He took to me faster than he took to my husband.  We adopted him once he was out of the woods.

I didn’t know then how good a fit he was for our household. Archie is like me in a lot of ways.  He’s a fighter. He’s stubborn, caring, loving, and addicted to treats.  He is full of energy and personality.  He’s easily districted and a touch on the crazy side.  He has been by my side as I battle fibromyalgia and chronic pain every day.  He listens too me when I need to vent and complain.  He licks away my tears.  He snuggles with me when I’m feeling terrible.  He pushes me to get up and go exercise when all I want to do is lay in bed from the pain.  He gives me sad eyes and makes little harumph sounds until I get up and we go for a walk.  The walk makes me feel worse at first, but then my muscles start to relax a bit.  I always feel better after exercising and he is good motivation for me to exercise daily.  If he doesn’t have exercise, he can be wild and tear around the house to burn off his extra energy.

Dogs are a great comfort to chronic pain sufferers.  They provided much needed emotional support and companionship.  It’s so easy to feel isolated by chronic pain.  The people in your life do their best to empathize, but they don’t really know what it feels like to be in chronic pain.  If you look into a dog’s eyes though, you see understanding staring back at you.  Archie just knows.  He knows when he can push me to get up and exercise and he knows when I’m in too much pain to move.  He’s a great cheerleader and a furry shoulder to cry on.  When I’m having a high pain day, he’ll look at me as if to say “How can I help you feel better, Mom?”  Sometimes he helps by making me get out of bed either to go for a walk, feed him, or let him outside.  You can’t stay in bed all day if you own a dog.  You have to get up and tend to your dog’s needs, which is a good thing for both of you.

Sometimes Archie helps me just by sitting on my lap, providing warmth and comfort. Dogs are a great distraction too.  They do the cutest, goofiest things sometimes.  They make you laugh.  They’re antics distract you from your pain, if only for a moment.  And that moment can be precious to a chronic pain sufferer like me.

Archie and his favorite toy

Archie and his favorite toy, a stuffed frog

We can learn a lot from our dogs too. Stretching is very important for pain relief. Our pets can teach us pain relieving habits.  Dogs get up in the morning or from a nap and the first thing they do is stretch their back out. He knows the importance of keeping your muscles stretched out. Simply petting your dog can loose stiff muscles and joints. People with chronic pain should stretch 15 to 20 minutes each day. Daily exercise helps reduce pain too.  In a study on the affect of stretching and exercise on chronic low pack pain, pain dropped by 44% with exercise versus 35% with pain medication. Walking our dogs helps us get the exercise we need and maintain a healthy weight, which can also help reduce pain.

Please sare your therapy dog stories. Has a pet made a difference in your life?

*Inspiration and statistics from this post came from “Pet Therapy & Chronic Pain,” by Dawn Marcus, MD, in Pain Pathways magazine, Summer 2012 issue.

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12 thoughts on “Pet Therapy and Chronic Pain

  1. [...] Pet Therapy and Chronic Pain (painfighter.wordpress.com) Sleepless In Newcastle by Keith Addison is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.Based on a work at http://www.keithaddison.co.uk/sleeplessinnewcastle. [...]

  2. Thanks for the nice blog. It was very useful for me. Keep sharing such ideas in the future as well. This was actually what I was looking for, and I am glad to come here! Thanks for sharing the information with us.

  3. Fibro Files says:

    Love Archie and love this info. Anything we can do to help chronic pain and fibro is so helpful. Of course animal lovers know the benefits!

  4. chiquitar says:

    Archie sounds awesome, and you’re right–there are many days I might not get out of bed, except I have dogs and need to take care of them. Harriett and Crackers are perfect company for me when I’m home alone, and Crackers cheers me up by being a complete clown. He has the goofiest doggie grins. He has a beautiful, regal shape and carriage sometimes, but his personality doesn’t match his looks at all!

    Harriett cheers me up especially when she gets on the couch with me and lays her head on my face. Cutest thing in the whole world.

    When I have them to worry about and take care of, it keeps me from feeling sorry for myself or getting all wrapped up in my pain. Takes me out of my head and back into my life! They’re very good for me.

  5. nancy laracy says:

    There is nothing quite like a furry animal to help manage your ails and change your outlook on life. Bunnyboy, my first therapy rabbit played such a vital role in my managing my fibromyalgia and connective tissue disease. He was also a formal therapy rabbit at various organizations. My current therapy Muffin had big shoes to fill but is doing a remarkable job. We are on board with a large hospital for their Butterflies Program which involved home visits to children with cancer and are pioneering a branch of Bunnies in Baskets here in the Northeast. She also visits schools for handicapped children, rehabilitation centers and nursing home and brings such joy to all while being my steadfast friend and loving therapy bunny. All four and a half pounds of pure loving fluff. Check http://www.nancylaracy.com to read more about my inspirational journey and how I have become a writer and advocate for the chronic pain community. Nancy Laracy

  6. Amanda says:

    Great blog :) am just after a bit of advice… I have had chronic pain for over a year now which the doctors are still trying to diagnose.
    I’m living in a rental which I hope to move out of soon but am not too sure. I would LOVE to get a dog to keep me company! But I have a fairly small yard :( but after reading this blog I think a dog could help?? Any advice??

    • painfighter says:

      My dog has been a huge part of my path back to healthiness, as I call the journey I’m on to feel better and cope better with my fibromyalgia. I don’t know what I’d do without him now. He seems to know when he can push me to get up and take him for a walk or play with him and when he can’t. He’s a great snugglier and usually ends up in my lap with is weight on whichever of my hips is hurting the most. If you are in a rental now and are not used to having a dog around, then maybe a smaller dog would be better for you? I have a 30 lb cockapoo who is full of energy and loves to jump around. I adopted Archie when he was about 6 months old and he was already house broken. You might check into local shelters or rescues for an almost adult dog who has already been housebroken some so you don’t have the stress of house training a puppy. Puppies are adorable and I love them but they can also be stressful and require extra (and daily) work for months. A little older dog you still get the playfulness and fun of the puppy mindset without the additional work of a brand new and very young puppy.

      At the same time, I caution if you are adopting an older dog or a rescue make sure you know a lot about the dog’s background. My dog is great now but he required a LOT of work and training to get him to where he is now. He had horrible separation issues and I think he was beaten before I got him so he was very skittish of anyone but me, especially men. There is also the option of adopting a several year old dog who is more laid back because he’s a little older. I have found with the local no kill shelter here that they learn a lot about their dogs and if you talk with them they’ll probably have a good suggestion or two of a dog that would be a good match for you. Good luck! And there’s a great mood boost to having a dog around, always so happy to see you and to greet you when you come in the door. He always makes me smile!

  7. Vanessa Abaciry says:

    Wow! I just googled dogs and fibromyalgia and found this article. I just adopted Dallas, the sweetest, most loving, gentle, caring creature on the planet, a couple of weeks ago. She’s a pitbull and I almost didn’t give her a chance because of the breed’s horrible reputation. I’m so glad I went with my heart and not my fears because she and I have bonded so closely already. The reason I googled dogs and fibromyalgia is because, MIRACULOUSLY, over the last week or so, my fibro pain has significantly lessened! I knew there had to be a connection!

    • painfighter says:

      I’m so glad you’re feeling better Vanessa! Dogs are wonderful companies and are great for people with chronic illnesses. I think you’ll find that the more time Dallas spends with you, the more in tune she’ll become with your needs. I didn’t have to train my dog or anything like that to become more like a therapy dog. He did that all by himself. I hope this trend continues for you. :)

  8. I also have a lovely rescue dog that’s been a major part of my recovery. She is also pretty darn cute – http://farm6.staticflickr.com/5092/5532152245_77234fcd79_z.jpg

    There is actually scientific proof that petting a dog, or just looking into their eyes for a few minutes causes the release of the “feel good” chemicals like serotonin or oxytocin. It also lowers the production of cortisol the stress hormone that causes the fight or flight response. Oxytocin not only is the feel good bonding chemical, that improves the mood, but is an anti-inflammatory and has been shown to help with wound healing and reduction in pain. (http://www.thomaslundeberg.com/uploaded/dokument/publicerade_dokument/Uvnas-Moberg%2092%20Oxytocin%20increases%20and%20a%20specific%20oxytocin%20antagonist%20decreases%20pain%20threshold%20in%20male%20rats.pdf)

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