Pets and Fibromyalgia

Many thanks to our community who shared pictures of their loving pets!! Oh yeah, Ahhh…

By: Diane McKay

Pets and fibromyalgiaWhen the National Fibromyalgia Association (NFA) recently asked members of the FM community to share stories about how their pets have impacted their lives, the response was well beyond anyone’s expectations! Thousands of individuals shared pictures of their pets and heartwarming stories of how their pet has helped improve their lives.

Here are some of the reasons offered by people with FM when describing how a pet companion gets them through their days. Dogs and cats have been critical in helping people navigate Fibromyalgia, with some individuals even reporting they would not be alive without the support of their pets unconditional love.

  • A creature to talk to and listen to complaints, without judgment.
  • Sensing when their guardians are experiencing flares or not feeling well, and not leaving their sides, offering “special attention” and loving support.
  • Providing a reason to get up in the morning: caring for them affords a sense of purpose, and a reason to live.
  • In the case of dogs, an incentive to walk and keep moving/active.
  • Providing a reason to laugh, often times providing entertainment.
  • Always being there, a constant companion.
  • Helping their guardian to “forget” their pain, by drawing their attention away from the pain.

According to the Center for Disease Control, studies have shown that the bond between people and their pets can increase fitness, lower stress, and bring happiness to their owners, with some of the following health benefits: decreased blood pressure, decreased cholesterol level, decreased triglyceride level, decreased feelings of loneliness, increased opportunities for exercise and outdoor activities, and increased opportunities for socialization.

A 2019 article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health concludes that “animal-assisted therapy (AAT) as a complementary therapy facilitated an additional reduction in the perception of pain and pain induced insomnia in individuals with higher baseline severity. Quality of life improved . . . In addition, AAT increased adhesion to the intervention and reduced the drop-out rate.  AAT contributes to the development of methods and non-pharmacological treatments, which have become an important tool for managing chronic pain as a complement to the pharmacological treatment.”[1]

Interest in the ability of pets to improve the lives of people with fibromyalgia is ongoing.

The Mayo Clinic is presently conducting a research study to test the investigators’ hypothesis that the presence of a Mayo Clinic certified therapy dog will provide additional benefits to patients suffering from fibromyalgia currently enrolled in the Mayo Clinic Fibromyalgia Program.

A study was carried out that evaluated therapy dog visits at a chronic pain outpatient pain management clinic. Conclusions were that therapy dog visits can provide significant reduction in pain and emotional distress for chronic pain patients.[2]

Another study specifically focused on animal-assisted therapy in fibromyalgia patients found that significant improvements were reported for pain, mood, and other measures of distress among patients after the therapy dog visit, but not the waiting room control. Clinically meaningful pain relief occurred in 34% after the therapy dog visit and 4% in the waiting room control.[3]

Nancy Gordon, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Life Coach, founder of Paws for Comfort and Xolos for Chronic Pain Relief, reports that Xoloitzcuintli dogs greatly helped her with chronic fibromyalgia pain by acting as a “living water bottle.” After she had been bedridden and housebound with fibromyalgia, the dogs helped her get out and move more comfortably, radically improving her life. They also decreased her depression. She now helps others with her extensive knowledge in this area.

Cats and dogs can be a source of entertainment, with their often-clownish behavior and antics. They provide lighthearted amusement and distraction, which can lessen distress and pain. Other animals, such as horses, rabbits, birds, reptiles, and even fish, can deliver comfort benefits. Bonds with pets produce endorphins, a natural painkiller. Low-impact exercise, so important for people with fibromyalgia, is achieved by caring for animal friends. Pets can be an antidote to worthlessness in light of the care required to keep them in good health over time: it is a job to look after them, and they are completely dependent on their guardians. This also presents an opportunity for focus, perhaps helping to mitigate “fibro fog.”

My gorgeous black cat Midnight, a rescue that lived with me for 15 years, and never knew me as a pain-free individual, was very intuitive to my agonizing struggles. Many nights when I was tossing and unable to sleep, she leapt onto the bed and extended herself over my legs, anchoring me so that further flipping was impossible, gently coaxing me to eventual sleep. If I walked by her as she was lounging by a sunny window, herself ill and in pain with several serious diseases, she stood up gingerly and meowed, as if to ask, “Do you need me? How can I help?”

She was my best friend and companion when I was homebound for several months due to toxic smoke from California wildfires. Many were the times I knew in my soul that if it were not for her, my despair and pain would have been so much more impossible to bear. But because I knew that no one else would be able to manage her complex illnesses and extreme fearfulness, and we were so bonded, it was clear that I was the only one who could keep her going; so, I soldiered on. She became my reason to live and literally saved my life.

Many months later, severely traumatized by debt and fighting an 8-year-long disability case, I was greatly soothed by caretaking a friend’s ragdoll cat brothers, themselves abused as kits. Then, I ended up in a co-living situation where there were five dogs. Though not a “dog person,” I was immediately grateful for the animals and their open offers of friendship. Ziggy, the tawny and energetic house therapy chihuahua, immediately picked up that I was in need of his services and dutifully hauled his compact body up the giant staircase on a regular basis to visit me, offering balm-like empathy and a comforting presence.

During these COVID-affected times, when so many of us are housebound, our animal companions are more important than ever. Mandatory isolation has highlighted the importance of our pet bonds. For those of us who are living alone, our animal friends play an even more crucial role. With a loving and devoted pet in the household, our struggles are lessened, and our lives are infinitely better, elucidating the enormous support capacity of these creatures and demonstrating their ability to enhance and improve our lives!

[1] Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019 Aug; 16(16): 2843.

Published online 2019 Aug 9. doi: 10.3390/ijerph16162843

[2] Pain Med. 2012 Jan;13(1):45-57.

doi: 10.1111/j.1526-4637.2011.01294.x

[3]  2013 Jan;14(1):43-51.

doi: 10.1111/j.1526-4637.2012.01522.x. Epub 2012 Nov 21