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Pets and Chronic Pain – can they help?


In this blog I want to talk about how pets can help control pain. I know this works. I have seen the evidence in my own psychology pain clinics in Bedford, Milton Keynes and video link. But now I can show you some hard science to prove it.

Pets can reduce reliance on pain medication 

There is evidence that pet therapy can reduce reliance on pain medication. Back in 2007 a clinical trial monitored pain medication in adults undergoing rehabilitation for injury degenerative disease or physical disability. The facility where they were being cared for had a therapy dog, a collie called Neil. After Neil’s arrival on the team pain medication dropped by non-less than 48 percent. https://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/ascp/tcp/2007/00000022/00000007/art00003

How do pets help chronic pain?

There are a number of ways in which pets may help us control our pain. 

We unconsciously model the pet’s ways of behaving. One benefit may be that we unconsciously model the pet’s behaviour. Animals stretch, that’s good for pain, they move around quite a bit, ditto, they like having fun and take pleasure in the little things in life. They sleep when they want and make no apology for change in mood, running about one moment and flopping down the next. Model that and I can almost guarantee your pain will not feel as bad. 

Exercise with a pet to help control your pain

Another benefit which should not be overlooked is exercise. If you can take a walk with your dog, it will help your pain. If that is too much for you, then just playing ball up and down the hall will help stop your joints stiffening up. Any movement will help your mood and that in itself can make you feel in more control of your pain. 

Distraction and stress relief to help pain

I know that managing pain is a very complex business. Medication can sometimes have a part, but when we are talking about chronic pain a different approach often works better. 

Distraction, stress relief and creating a comfortable environment can all play a very important role.  There are a lot of ways we can help here, psychology and hypnotherapy for pain management are good examples. And there are things which are often part of our everyday lives which can get forgotten if we are dealing with pain, exercise and nature would be two good examples here. 

And another on one, which might surprise some of you, is the power of pets. Pets can be a positive asset if you are dealing with pain. 

Animal assisted therapy for pain

Using pets to help pain is becoming more established. It is often now called animal assisted therapy. So how does it work? 

Dogs are the most commonly used animal, followed by cats but horses and dolphins are up there too.

When formal therapy is being practiced, often there is a goal in mind. The client needs to feel comfortable with the pet or animal and the animal is often specially trained.  

In a well-known study in pain medicine (https://academic.oup.com/painmedicine/article/13/1/45/1854248 )200 adults, with common pain issues such as back and leg pain, nerve-related pain fibromyalgia arthritis and head pain  met a little terrier dog called Wheatie.

Before their appointments with Wheatie they were asked to scale their pain on a one to eleven scale, with eleven being the highest. They then got to spend time with Wheatie. They could choose how long they spent, and ten minutes was about the average. 

Wheatie had been trained to sit still or stand near the client and he loved being petted.

Wheatie’s handler was there but kept in the background, only answering questions about Wheatie if asked.

After the encounter with Wheatie the clients were asked to scale their pain again and it had dropped, by two points as an average. 

There was a control group, who also saw the doctor in the same environment but did not have the pleasure of Wheatie’s company. They did not show any decline in pain.

Another experiment, much smaller this time looked at pain and children. Again, they rated their pain before the dog visit and there was a control group, who just rested quietly instead of seeing the dog. Pain reduction was much greater in the children who saw the dog. 

What are the benefits of spending time with a therapy dog?

The reasons pet therapy is so effective are quite complex. But listing the main ones shows us just how effective this therapy can be. We now know that spending time with a pet can:

  • Reduce stress hormones such as epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol.
  • Increase the feel-good chemicals in our bodies, our endorphins.
  • Increase our natural oxytocin. This helps reduce pain (it is the hormone released in childbirth)
  • Increase the mood enhancing hormones such as serotonin. We know that if you have a better mood your pain will feel less bad.

There is also evidence to show blood pressure is reduced if you spend time with a pet. Although you will not notice this directly, it is good for your overall health.

Pets and mindfulness

Spending time with a pet also has the benefit of distraction. We know that distraction literally takes your mind away from your pain and this is a real benefit. Pets do this very well. 

There are other, less quantifiable benefits. Pets somehow seem to know when we are not at our best and react empathetically. My own personal theory is that pets live in the moment. If you have pet therapy you are enjoying the pet and he is enjoying you. But he is not thinking about paying the bills or whether to change jobs or all of the other chatter which runs through our human brain. He is just in the moment, he is mindful. And we pick up on that and reflect it. That is super calming, and that helps as deal with pain.

If you own a pet it can do even more good. The sense of responsibility for another creature can act as a great grounding and it can raise your self-esteem. 

If you cannot have a pet yourself, and it is a big responsibility, then perhaps you might use a pet sharing service such as https://borrowmydoggy .This will enable you to spend time with a dog, but without the whole responsibility of ownership

Finally, this is a great book if you want to learn more and get a nice warm feeling as well. Dr. Dawn Marcus showcases the wide range of research that shows the therapeutic and healing power of dogs for people of all ages and with a wide range of health conditions.  


If you would like to share how your pet helps you with your pain, please leave a comment and or a photo!

Wishing you a less pain day

Dr Sue

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