Why Is Having a Pet a Good Idea if You Have Chronic Pain?

I’ve heard from two camps when it comes to pets and pain/illness. One, is people (like me) saying that it has been really helpful for them. The other says that its too hard to take care of a pet (particularly dogs) and they want to (or do) give their pets up. So I thought we could look at some of the research on pets and pain this week so you can decide for yourself if it’s good. While I will state up front that I always found it good for me (I had to put my little guy down in September 2020 and I’ve been without a pet since), I am happy to look at some of the challenges that can come from having a pet as well. I’ll link the main article I’m referencing at the bottom if you want to read it (it’s a scholarly journal article so it’s not for everyone) but I also got a lot of this information from the research summarized at the World Pain Summit I attended last fall. Most of the information between the two overlaps, which makes sense because, again, it’s based on research.

Me and Spike having a cuddle.

I want to look at the benefits of having a pet, particularly a dog (though a cat or other small mammal usually provides most of the benefits) into two categories: physical benefits, and emotional benefits. Let’s start with the physical.

  • a lot of pet owners report having lower levels of overall pain. This could be for a variety of reasons, but some stated include distraction from the pain and less pain catastrophizing (if you haven’t read the post I did on that basically it means constant thinking about being in pain).
  • It helps promote healthy behaviours such as physical activity. This means that you may have to get up and take the dog for a walk (even a short one), and we know from other research that exercise reduces pain. You may also do other physical activity such as cleaning a cage or litter box or cleaning up the yard, and again, movement is good.
  • Better sleep. A lot of pet owners who let their pet sleep with them find that they get better sleep because it soothes them, they feel a sense of security, and they have better sleep routines/sleep hygiene. Anyone with a dog knows that they get into a habit of a bed time much better than we do, and they also have good wake up time habits.
He was such a good boy and helpful friend.

The second area of benefits comes in the form of emotional ones, so let’s look at them.

  • They can give us purpose in life. This can also be viewed as “behavioural activation” which means we are motivated to go to the thing (in this case get up and take care of the pet or go outside).
  • Less psychological distress. This means less depression, and lower levels of anxiety.
  • More relaxation. Cuddling a dog or cat literally releases oxytocin in our brain which has a calming effect on us. Pets in general promote relaxation, as well as comfort, patience, and protection.
  • Support. Pets are extremely good nonjudgmental listeners. People who talk to their pets about their problems and pain feel supported and comforted by them, and then often don’t feel as strong a need to talk about it with their friends and families, which can sometimes improve those relationships.
  • Social connectedness. This especially works for dog owners who will often socialize with other dog owners when out for walks or at the dog park. If you have a dog you may be aware of how many people stop to chat with you and your pup.
My older brother’s dog, Pippa, gives me some much needed pup time.

So if those are all the benefits, what are the downsides? Because we know there are always going to be some.

  • Increased worry. This is in regards to your pet. If you can find someone to look after it if you are unable to (i.e., hospital visits, etc.). If you have the money to care for your pet, etc.
  • Anticipatory grief. I find this one interesting because I didn’t think of it, but yes, our pets don’t live long and I remember the grief I experienced when I put down Spike (and I still get waves of it). So that can be difficult.
  • Fear of injury or strain. To yourself, because you’re already in pain and those “what if” thoughts can come up when playing with your pet, walking it, carrying it, etc.
  • Sleep interruptions. Though most people report pets improve their sleep, some notice that it can get interrupted (especially if your pet is sick or has to go out to pee).

Overall, it seems that most of the research so far supports having a pet if you have chronic pain. The benefits seems to outweigh the costs (which not every pet owner experiences). I’m sticking with my thoughts that pets are helpful for pain. Again, I’ve always found that for me. I hope that I’m able to get a new dog in the next 6 months or so, because I’m ready for those positive benefits (even if the challenges creep in).

I also notice how great my parents dog, Beau, is for them as they get older.

Comment to let me know your thoughts, and keep making the most of it!



My Experience at the World Pain Summit ’21, Part 2

If you read last week’s blog post then you know that I recently attended the World Pain Summit, put on by the Alberta Pain Society. I did this as both an allied healthcare practitioner (as a clinical counsellor) and as a person with lived experience. By the way, this event is apparently always free to people with lived experience, so keep an eye out for it next year. The summit was 3 days and had so much info, that this is going to be part 2 of a 3-part post, and focuses on the content of Day 2. Without further ado, here’s what I learned.

How Living with a Dog Can Improve Quality of Life and Well-Being in People with Persistent Pain. The first bit of interesting info was a bit of an aside – only 1% of the curricula for healthcare professionals is on pain, which means if your doctor doesn’t understand (and isn’t attending these kinds of conferences) that is likely why (definitely not an excuse – all healthcare professionals should be attending conferences/summits/etc throughout their careers). The most interesting parts of this session was the statistics on dog/pet owners (cats and other kinds of pets count):

  • they report lower pain
  • less depression and anxiety and loneliness – i.e., better mental health
  • improved well-being and meaning/purpose in life

Having a pet also gives you a non-judgmental listener whom you can talk to, and petting an animal releases oxytocin in our brains, which has a calming effect. Yay for pets!

This is my parents’ dog, Beau.

Is Supported Pain Self-Management Your First Choice or Last Resort?: 5 Key Coaching Support Skills. This was present by Pete Moore, a person with lived experience, who wrote a book on the subject. The 5 key skills he talked about were: (1) goal setting and action planning; (2) practicing daily activities – I know ADLs can be hard for some people but they are important to well-being; (3) problem solving; (4) keeping active, moving, including stretching and exercise; and (5) knowing what to do if you have a set-back (i.e., planning for that in advance). Much of this involves having a support team, pacing, prioritizing, being patient with yourself, learning relaxation skills, tracking your progress, and resilience.

Pete Moore presented this cycle, which really resonated with me and probably many others.

How a Pain Doctor is Using Social Media to Spread Knowledge About Chronic Pain. This was a session more for healthcare professionals on how to start a YouTube channel (and why they should). But some interesting factors for Spoonies: the current quality of medical information on YouTube is very low, so please be careful and look for trusted sources (i.e., trained healthcare professionals in different areas).

My YouTube channel is for meditations (with an emphasis on pain and illness).
Let me know if I should include other psychoeducational content and skills.

Trauma, Illness, and Healing – Dr. Gabor Mate’s keynote. I’ve written a ton about Dr. Mate’s work in the past, and there was obviously some repeat in content about trauma, childhood abuse, insecure attachments and stress and their relationship to chronic pain and illness. A couple of things I will share:

  • mind body practices (like yoga) should be included in chronic pain treatment
  • a lot of back pain is associated with psychoemotional stress (tension, stress, trauma)
  • Go to a physician for what they can do (prescribe medications, perform surgery, etc.) and find other practitioners to help you with the other parts of treatment
  • diagnoses are descriptions, not explanations
  • psychological and spiritual support is important

If you’re not familiar with Dr. Mate’s work, check out When the Body Says No (I also did a post about the book awhile back).

Dr. Gabor Mate is world leading expert on the trauma-stress interaction with illness.
Image from: https://californiahealthline.org/news/addiction-rooted-in-childhood-trauma-says-prominent-specialist/

Challenging Chronicity Thoughts: Words Matter. So this was a mental health session, if the title isn’t clear! It emphasized that psychological factors are an important component of pain experience and are the most powerful psychological predictor of adverse health and mental health outcomes associated with pain – they even affect our treatment responses to medications, injections, physical therapy, and most other treatments. Recovery is not just about talking (to a therapist), needs and activity but also about ways of thinking. Two important notes for my fellow Spoonies: (1) pain is perceived by your brain (all in your head) but it is real; and (2) the word pain takes you right to thinking about/feeling pain (check out this podcast episode I did on externalizing language and pain/illness).

Chronicity thoughts are about way more than language. I highly recommend seeking therapy if you find you think about your illness/pain a lot.

Next week I’ll bring you a post on the information from the final day of the summit. I hope that you find some of this helpful when thinking about illness and well-being. Keep making the most of it everyone!

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Diagnosis Update

Isn’t it always the case when you have an autoimmune disease that there are multiple updates over the years? Like either a change of diagnosis or an added diagnosis. I follow so many people on Instagram with the same experiences. This week I had an appointment with my rheumatologist (and a resident, so two docs which was fun – by the way I love that the hospital I go to is a teaching hospital because I think that makes everyone work a little harder to provide excellent care), and of course there is an update to my diagnosis.

Image from: https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/conditions/autoimmune/index.cfm

Lets travel back a bit. First I was given an incorrect diagnosis of gout back in 2015 by my GP. Fast forward to February 2016 when I first saw my rheumatologist, ran some tests and then a month later gave me (maybe a little too quickly) a diagnosis of lupus. Fast forward to June 2016 and she added fibromyalgia to the list. Then we skip over to November 2016 and she decides that I don’t qualify for a lupus diagnosis and I am a “mystery.” So I have remained with a fibromyalgia diagnosis since then.

Me back in 2016.

Now my diagnosis has been updated to Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease, which upon looking up what exactly that was, makes a lot of sense. So what is UCTD? It’s a systemic autoimmune disease that doesn’t quite fit the criteria for any differentiated autoimmune disease – like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, or scleroderma, etc. I’ve read some different statistics on it, and it seems that around 25% of rheumatology patients have UCTD, and only between 20-30% of patients will eventually get a diagnosis of lupus, RA, etc. Symptoms usually include high ANAs, arthralgia/myalgia, arthritis, Raynaud’s, and fatigue, among a few others.

My symptoms include consistently high ANAs on blood panels that are taken every 6 months, arthralgia/myalgia, I don’t quite get full-blown Raynaud’s but certainly very red and slightly swollen fingers in the cold, sometimes numbness in my fingers or toes, and fatigue. So, while I don’t fit the criteria for lupus, I certainly fit the criteria for UTCD.

Now how does this make me feel? Honestly, a sense of relief. I am happy to have a diagnosis again, and one that seems to actually fit what is going on. My rheumy is going to fill out the paperwork I need for my work coverage (because they’ve been after my sick days), which also makes me feel relieved. Basically, I feel like it’s good to get a diagnosis because the waiting game on diagnoses can be anxiety-riddling experiences as I’m sure many of you know.

Relieved at my diagnosis but missing my baby.

I also want to give you an update on Spike, because last week I mentioned he was at the vet. Unfortunately he had to be put down. I am heart-broken as I’ve lost my best friend.