Animals, especially domestic companions such as dogs and cats, bring people happiness. But could animals actually make us healthier, too? Is it time to start considering animal-assisted therapy a viable complementary and alternative healing practice for those living with chronic pain?
Scientists think so, and studies have been conducted to try and quantify the health benefits of interacting with animals. While we feel on an instinctive level that dogs make us happy, it is important to understand why, so that practitioners can begin to suggest animal-assisted therapy to their patients as a credible complementary healing modality.
Animals assist in the healing process in two different but overlapping ways: Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) and animal-assisted activity (AAA). Dogs visiting children at a hospital and a pain patient owning a dog are both examples of AAA, which are relatively unstructured, simple relationships with loose goals. On the other hand, AAT involves a licensed AAT specialist and specific goals. AAT often involves horses and is meant to have more tangible results such as improvement of the patient’s mobility. Both forms of animal-assisted healing are legitimate, but this article will focus on AAA, which is more accessible and commonplace.
Healthy interactions between humans and animals have innumerable and diverse benefits, all of which contribute to a holistic healing approach for chronic pain patients. Here are a few of those benefits.
ACCEPTANCE: Many patients identify shame or self-consciousness as a byproduct of living with chronic pain. They feel they don’t want to burden their friends by complaining too much or taking longer to complete tasks. This can develop a sense of isolation; no one else could possibly understand and you would not want to bring them down with you anyway. Pets, however, are constant companions who will never judge you or make you feel self conscious for complaining. Pets, especially dogs, are loyal, they accept you even when—especially when—you are having a particularly painful day. They won’t ask you to explain your pain to them.
NURTURING and EMPATHY: Caring for an animal takes responsibility, empathy and ritual. It requires daily attention and love; so does managing chronic pain. The habits you develop from the care taking of your animal will inevitably translate into the care taking of your own body; as you would pay attention to the well being of your animal, you will pay attention to the well-being of yourself, checking in with your pain every day and becoming responsible for your own healing process. Loving your pet will help with your own self-love.
OUTWARD FOCUS: Many patients attest to another wonderful thing about living with or interacting with an animal: it distracts you, if only for a temporary moment, from your pain. It gives you something else to do, another life to pay attention to. It shifts and enlarges your perspective so that your pain does not consume you.
PHYSICAL CONTACT and SOCIALIZATION: Physical contact has been proven time and time again to be healthy for humans. And most dogs and cats love to be touched too. There’s not much explanation to this one; cuddling with your pet will improve your emotional well being. Having a pet fosters human socialization as well; it lightens the mood in the room and makes conversation flow with ease.
Of course, having a pet is a big responsibility, one that many people don’t have either the time or the economic means to maintain. If that is the case for you, do not give up. There are plenty of ways to interact with animals without owning one. Some therapists have an animal in their office, serving as a ‘co-therapist’ in order to quell anxiety in the space and inject a dose of happiness, hopefully creating an environment that is overall more productive for dialogue.
And if you don’t see a therapist, visit your friend’s dog! Take them on a walk now and then. Or volunteer at your local shelter and play with the puppies who are looking for homes. Both their lives and yours will be improved.
Happiness, companionship, self-love, distraction, physical contact… the list is really endless. Consider animal-assisted healing as you work to manage your pain.
If you or someone you love have been suffering from chronic pain, give the pain specialists at Pain Management and Injury Relief a call today at (877) 724-6349 to book your appointment.