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!