How Pets Help People With Chronic Pain
November 16, 2015
By Linda Cole
Growing up with a parent who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, I saw firsthand the difficulties someone with chronic pain lives with each day. It can be hard to get up in the morning, do daily chores and give 100% at work. My mom did the best she could with everyday activities. I know how tough it was at times, but her pets gave her motivation to crawl out of bed each morning. Pets are beneficial to our health in many ways, and they can help people with chronic pain.
We all experience pain at some point in our lives. Whether it’s chronic pain or acute pain from an injury or medical issue, pain is a normal sensation in the nervous system that says pay attention. Acute pain is generally something that can be treated. Chronic pain is much different, and defined as pain that lasts for at least three months or longer. The impact of chronic pain can range from mild irritation to life changing restrictions that can affect a person’s emotional and social outlook as well as physical health.
It can be difficult for doctors to find the cause of chronic pain, and managing the pain becomes an ongoing challenge. Constant pain can make it hard to get moving in the morning. Some people are forced to give up a job they love. It can cause a person to withdraw from family and friends, become depressed, feel isolated from the world, and even lose their sense of identity. It’s hard to explain how debilitating chronic pain can be to people who have never dealt with it. You can’t always see someone’s pain, and it’s an invisible disability.
Pets can be lifesavers for people with chronic pain. Caring for a dog or cat helps distract the mind from pain and shifts the focus onto another living being who needs attention, food, grooming, walks and playtime. Teaching a dog basic commands not only makes him easier to control, it can help someone with chronic pain train their pet to help them with some everyday chores such as retrieving dropped items and fetching things. Pets can also help by simply laying next to an aching joint to provide warmth and relief.
A feeling of isolation is common among people with chronic pain. It’s hard for family, friends and co-workers to empathize when they don’t understand how you feel, but a pet is always there to provide emotional support and much needed companionship. Pets give their love unconditionally and don’t cast judgment. Sitting and talking to your dog or cat can help decrease feelings of loneliness, depression and isolation. Cats especially are said to have a calming effect on humans – more than any other animal, in fact. A pet will listen to you talk as long as you want to, and petting your dog or cat while talking to them helps loosen up stiff joints and muscles.
Pet owners with chronic pain understand that no matter how much they may hurt, their animal still needs to be cared for. The simple act of petting a dog or cat releases endorphins, the body’s natural pain and stress relievers. Interacting with a dog or cat causes an increase in oxytocin levels for bonding, and serotonin levels that modify sleep, mood and pain. Spending time with a beloved pet also increases dopamine levels that provide a feeling of happiness, and decreases cortisol levels which reduces stress, anxiety and depression.
Cats and dogs can remind people with arthritis that it’s time for a good stretch. It’s important to keep moving, and low-impact aerobics and stretching helps build muscle, improve endurance and relieve pain by maintaining range of motion in joints so they don’t stiffen up. When you see your pet stretch, join him!
Pets are sensitive to when their owner isn’t feeling well, and sometimes one of the best things you can do for yourself is to take the dog for a walk or toss a ball for him to fetch. Exercise takes your mind off your pain and helps maintain a healthy weight, which can also help reduce pain.
Chronic pain can wear a person down over time, but it’s hard to ignore a cat gently touching your face with her paw or a dog resting his head on your lap as if asking, “Can I help?” Both are sincere gestures that say you’re not alone. Pets help ease chronic pain by making us laugh, releasing endorphins. Laughter is one of mankind’s best medicines, and our pets provide plenty of reasons to laugh every single day.
Top photo by Anne Beaumont/Flickr
Bottom photo by Les Chatfield/Flickr