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Benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy for Chronic Pain

Alternative Treatments Aug 21, 2017 No Comments

Humans and animals have shared a bond of companionship for thousands of years. We have bred animals like cats and dogs to be fellow hunters, friends, and guardians. And research shows that our bond is strong with some animals. This bond is so strong that animals – mostly dogs – have evolved to partially understand and react to human emotion and speech from birth (albeit tonality, not words themselves). Because of this, animal assisted therapy is becoming a popular alternative treatment for those suffering from chronic pain.

For patients with fibromyalgia, animal assisted therapy produced significant improvements in measures of pain, distress and mood. Those without therapy dog visits, did not experience the same improvements. No medicine or physical therapy was involved. Just dogs.

Why Humans Love Animals

Benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy for Chronic Pain | Comprehensive Pain Management Center

While being a fan of cats, dogs and other pets is not a universal prerequisite of being human – plenty of people fear or hate dogs and cats – it is common. About two thirds of America lives with pets, and the overwhelming majority of pet owners think having a dog or cat in the household is healthy, and an overall benefit.

Furthermore, there is some credence to the idea that we have greater sympathy for animals than we do for our fellow man. Researchers have shown that there is a correlation between how much sympathy we feel towards someone, and how innocent or helpless they are. At the top of our list tends to be babies – we’re biologically inclined to save an infant. Yet we’re more likely to save puppies/kittens and adult pets than we are an adult human stranger.

This isn’t always true, and it’s truer for women than it is for men – yet there’s a cynicism and suspiciousness towards strangers that we don’t exhibit towards animals, for obvious reasons. Some people see this as misanthropy, others see it as an example of our instinct to protect those who can’t protect themselves.

Yet moral duty isn’t a good explanation for why we share a bond with our pets – no other animal keeps pets, and morality isn’t a good explanation for our love of cats and dogs given our love of meat and milk. Instead, evolution is more likely. Just as we evolved to use tools and invent technology, we also moved on towards domestication in the age of agriculture, and continued to use tamed animals as hunting companions and in war.

Therefore, domestic dogs and humans share a familial bond – one that makes both us and the dog exhibit higher levels of oxytocin when interacting with one another, as dogs have evolved alongside us to be family. It’s a symbiotic relationship, where we care for dogs while they aid us. This chemical link is what makes animal assisted therapy so successful – and why dogs are a potent tool in suppressing chronic pain.

How Oxytocin Suppresses Pain

Woman with Dog | Comprehensive Pain Management Center

Oxytocin, known as the “cuddle hormone”, plays a vital role in sex, love, stress reduction, arousal and emotional bonding alike. Our oxytocin levels typically rise when we’re feeling hot and bothered, loved, or in the mood for romance – yet it also carries the benefit of being an analgesic.

Exactly how it does this isn’t completely understood. The dominant theories are that oxytocin either directly influences the body’s capacity to feel and experience pain, or it indirectly acts as a numbing agent by improving mood and reducing anxiety. Either way, research shows that oxytocin is effective in reducing pain – and it doesn’t have to enter the system through pharmaceutical means.

Animal assisted therapy has other benefits than simply increasing the body’s oxytocin levels, and thus numbing pain. Chronic pain is a debilitating disease that affects the patient through reoccurring episodes of intense discomfort. This also means it hinders a patient from doing many of the things they’d love to do, from work to engaging in hobbies and sports. Chronic pain thus is accompanied by feelings of depression, and isolation.

Long-term treatment can reduce the effects of chronic pain, but the debilitating nature of the disease means it’s often paired with mental dissatisfaction, bordering on or slipping into the territory of depression. And it’s precisely in the reduction of depression that animal assisted therapy excels. Being with animals can increase feelings of happiness and generally calm anxiety.

Exploring the Benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy

Woman holding dog for chronic pain | Comprehensive Pain Management Center

The benefits of animal assisted therapy are a reduction in pain, anxiety and depressive thinking. When around animals, most people in chronic pain felt better – happier. Their emotional distress levels dropped, as did their pain and fatigue.

Yet those are results from having a therapy pet pay you a visit in the waiting room at the doctor’s office – while they show how potent animals are in reducing our stress, especially in stressful environments, they don’t highlight the benefits of involving pets and animals in your day-to-day life to deal with chronic pain.

Working dogs for those struggling with chronic pain is an effective way to help deal with challenging every-day tasks, while providing a source of comfort, stress-relief and companionship. Furthermore, caring for a pet not only helps you avoid depression, but it gives you a feeling of purpose when you can be a caregiver, rather than someone who typically receives care. While the physical effects of chronic pain are undeniable, there are mental ones as well – and alleviating them a little bit can greatly improve your overall quality of life, and give you a reason to look forward to every sunrise.

Given how our ancestors and those before them were fond of having animals around, it’s logical to presume that they have some sort of positive effect on us psychologically. And as studies show, they do. If you’re looking for a way to improve your life under chronic pain, while giving a home to a trained animal in need of one, then a working dog may be perfect for you. A pet is more than a dose of medicine or a therapy – a pet can be a trained therapist, and a dear friend. Aside from providing you with a daily dose of natural analgesics, animal assisted therapy can improve your outlook on life with chronic pain and provide you with the pleasure of a human-animal bond.


Comprehensive Pain Management Center