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Chronic Pain and Pets

A Man with his dog
Adam Foster
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We noticed a long time ago that many of our chronic pain clients had pets, and that they often seemed to help with pain levels. At The Fibro Guy, Frank is our mascot and emotional support dog. He has been around clients since he was a puppy and loves nothing more than a stroke or some tasty treats that the clients bring (subtle note that Fibro Guy Paul likes treats too, don’t forget about him!).

Frank has helped people through some really difficult times emotionally. He is an incredibly valuable 4 legged member of the team, and he is also probably the cutest!

So, today, let’s take a look at some of the research into pets and pain. As with most things to do with pain, there is a big fat “it depends” attached to the topic.

What does science say about Chronic pain and Pets?

One study showed that those patients with Fibromyalgia, who had contact with animals as part of their treatment, had significantly lower levels of pain and anxiety than those who did not have contact.  Another study conducted with children diagnosed with Leukaemia, showed significant improvement in pain levels, as well as decreased irritation and stress. Research even suggests that pet therapy is efficient in improving depressive symptoms and cognitive function in residents of long-term care facilities with mental illness. Many professionals often urge people to not let their animals into the bedroom at night, as it is well known that sleep disturbances increase pain. However, a few studies in this area have actually revealed the opposite, showing “overwhelmingly positive” health results. People reported fewer feelings of loneliness and anxiety from stroking their dogs at night.

Our clients love Frank (and he loves them!) There are many factors which contribute to chronic pain, whilst talking with clients about difficult subjects, it can be therapeutic to stroke Frank. It can also be a great change of pace to get out of the studio and walk Frank. This is where the use of therapy animals really compliments other therapies. Anecdotally, we noticed a while ago that the large majority of our clients have pets. An overwhelming amount reported that their pets do make a difference to their pain levels and health in general.

Some reasons include:

      • Better Mood:  The therapeutic act of cuddling, playing, and just generally being with their animals helped to bring pain levels down.
      • Being More Relaxed: Clients often report feeling more relaxed and comfortable when spending time with their fur babies.
      • Distraction:  Looking after their animals helps to act as a distraction from themselves.
      • Exercise: Walking dogs helped people to get outside in nature and do some gentle exercise, in the form of dog walking.

    There are a few theories about why pets seemingly help with chronic pain. One is that animals can help to distract us from our pain, and as pain is a very conscious experience, it’s beneficial to have your attention turned elsewhere. When we interact with animals, our brains release chemicals that make us feel happy and relaxed. This in turn helps to lower stress chemicals such as cortisol, which are typically raised when we’re in pain.

    Another theory is that animals can help to increase our levels of feel-good chemicals, such as oxytocin and serotonin. Ever seen people get super excited when they see a dog? Well, that’s a perfect example of how those chemicals at work. These chemicals can help to reduce pain and make us feel happier overall.

    Whatever the reason, there is no denying that in some cases, animals can be really beneficial option to help soothe and make us calmer when we need some support. Whilst there is some data and theories on why pets can help with pain, there is also another side to this coin. Many with conditions like hypermobility and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome report that animals such as dogs can in fact make their pain worse, by pulling too hard on their leads when walking.

    Likewise, many cat owners report that changing cat trays can cause issues like back pain to flare up, often leaving people in a pained state. We often find that our clients with lower back pain often find dog walking initially hard, as factors like holding the lead and mechanical coupling influence their pain.

    So, like most things with chronic pain, it depends. Some people find their pets really help them, yet others find they accidentally cause them more pain.

    What are your experiences with your pets? (Pictures are most definitely welcome!)

    – The Fibro Guy Team –