Animals provide unconditional love without judging you for having a medical condition that most people don’t understand. Depending on the animal, they can also be expensive and time-consuming to care for on a regular basis. But a new study shows you may not need to be a full-time caretaker to reap the benefits of pet therapy.*
Animal-assisted therapy is a complementary approach to helping people with a wide range of medical conditions. Pets are often dogs trained to be obedient, calm, and comforting, and visits are typically provided through volunteer services at healthcare settings. Obviously, animals can be stress-relieving, but studies also show they boost the body’s production of pain-fighters and immune system healers.
Dawn Marcus, M.D., the lead author of a study at a Pittsburgh pain clinic, measured the impact of a brief visit with a therapy-trained dog in fibromyalgia patients. During a 10 to 15 minute period prior to their doctor’s appointment, 84 patients received pet therapy and another 49 fibro patients just spent the time in the waiting room. A short questionnaire before and after the therapy service or wait time was used to detect symptom differences.
“Overall, pain severity was significantly reduced after a brief therapy dog visit,” states Marcus. In fact, all measures including fatigue, stress level, calmness, and cheerfulness improved, not just pain. Slightly longer visits tended to produce better results in the pet therapy group, while cheerfulness and fatigue became worse as time increased for the waiting room group.
“Clinically meaningful pain relief was reported in 34% of the fibromyalgia patients after the dog visit versus only 4% in the waiting room controls,” says Marcus. “Effects did not appear to be substantially influenced by coexisting mood disorder symptoms.”
Satisfaction with the dog therapy visit was 92%. Also, the effectiveness of the pet intervention did not depend upon whether the patient viewed themselves as a “dog lover” or someone who prefers cats.
Healthcare providers may struggle with recommending alternative care to fibromyalgia patients due to limited studies on a therapy’s benefits, as well as cost and availability constraints. Although these latter two issues are not a barrier for doctors who wish to provide pet therapy for patients in their waiting room, this study offers a starting basis for such a practice.
Of course, you don’t have to wait for your physician to offer you a slice of pet therapy to receive the potential benefits from it. If you don’t already have a pet, contact your local Humane Society, animal organization, or veterinarian clinic to find out about programs in your area. You may also volunteer for a while to determine what type of animal best suits you and your pocketbook.
For those of you who have a pet or two, please comment about pros or the cons of owning various types of animals. Also, if you have a photogenic pet or one that has lots of character, please copy a picture with a comment to our Facebook page album at www.facebook.com/FibroNetwork. Animals can be hilarious, so don’t hesitate to give other fibromyalgia patients a chuckle.
* Marcus DA, et al. Impact of Animal-Assisted Therapy for Outpatients with Fibromyalgia. Pain Medicine [epub ahead of print] Nov.21, 2012.
Pet Therapy Reduces Fibromyalgia Pain and Other Symptoms.