By Maggie Harris, LCSW
Did you know that pets can help with chronic pain? If you have a pet, you are probably quite aware of the benefits. Loving our animals and receiving their love is a sweet and powerful experience. But there is also research to back this up. Multiple studies show that pets or pet therapy can reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and decrease depression and loneliness1. Playing with your pet actually elevates serotonin and dopamine levels in your brain, leading you to feel more calm and relaxed. A 2009 study by Loyola University researchers showed that people who had joint replacement surgery needed half as much pain medication if pet therapy was part of their treatment2. Arthritis sufferers in general were also found in this study to report less joint pain when they received pet therapy.
Having a pet gives you a reason to get up in the morning and thus a sense of purpose or meaning. Loss of purpose that can come with chronic pain can be devastating. Loss of work and the inability to provide for yourself and family can bring about grief and a huge void inside, as well as negative self judgment and stress. So building a life with meaning alongside the pain becomes a critical task for the chronic pain sufferer.
In the 2 ½ years I have worked at SJNMR, I have learned from my patients that, in general, those who have a reason to get up in the morning, such as someone or something to care for (whether this be a spouse, child, grandchild, pet or garden) cope better with their pain than those who do not. Even if the pain of getting out of bed is terrible, my patients tell me that being useful, caring for others or contributing in some way, improves quality of life.
Caressing and interacting with our pets can help to alleviate loneliness. Who doesn’t thrive in the face of the unconditional love our pets provide us? Walking our dogs, even if painful, keeps us active, which is an anti-depressant and can also help with anxiety. Focusing on more than just ourselves can pull some of the attention away from the pain, leading to the perception of less pain. The structure and routine of caring for a pet is also good for the depression often experienced by those with chronic pain.
If you are considering getting a pet, please do so responsibly. Keep in mind any limitations or restrictions you may have because of disability as well as the energy level of the pet you are considering getting. Check with your medical provider if you have any questions about that. Having a pet is a give and take relationship, and you need to give your pet what he or she needs to thrive. If you are prepared to do that, the benefits to you will be great!