How Animal-Assisted Therapy May Soothe Your Pain

While we all know that pets can trigger a smile or a sense of calmness within most people, it may surprise you that a pet can actually reduce pain.

Animal-assisted therapy, also known as pet therapy, entails using trained animals to provide some sort of therapeutic benefit (whether that be the comfort, relaxation, or easing the pain) to people of all ages with a wide range of health problems.

People petting dog in group therapy session

Caiaimage / Agnieszka Olek / Getty Images

The Basics of Animal-Assisted Therapy

While dogs and cats are probably the most commonly utilized animals in therapy visits, other animals like birds, guinea pigs, fish, horses, and dolphins can also be used. The key is finding an animal that a person can connect with based on their needs.

It's also important to understand that the human-animal bond during an animal therapy visit session is meant to be a healing connection, one that encompasses the patient, the animal, and the animal owner or handler.

In order for the therapy visit to be effective, the animal should be trained, and there needs to be a well-defined goal established prior to the therapy initiating. An established goal helps guide the session and ensure that the person is getting the healing benefit they desire out of the interaction.

The Science Behind Animal-Assisted Therapy for Adults

In one study in Pain Medicine, over 200 adults at an outpatient pain clinic underwent pet therapy with a 5-year-old wheaten terrier named Wheatie. The participants had a wide range of common pain disorders, including back, neck, or leg pain, migraines, fibromyalgia, arthritis, and nerve-related pain.

In the study, the participants completed a survey prior to seeing Wheatie, which consisted of rating the severity of their pain on an eleven-point scale (the higher the number, the more severe the pain).

After completing the survey, the participants could visit the dog in a clinic room for however long they desired, or until their doctor was ready for their appointment (the average visit was about 10 minutes). During the pet therapy visit, Wheatie was trained to sit or stand next to the participant's chair and accept petting.

Discussion between the dog's handler and the participant was limited to dog-related topics. After the visit, the participants again completed the same survey they had completed prior to the pet visit.

Results revealed a "clinically meaningful" decrease in pain in nearly one-quarter of the participants after visiting Wheatie. "Clinically meaningful" was defined as a decrease of two or more points in the 11-point pain scale.

The study also had a control group, which consisted of 96 participants who completed the same surveys. These control participants waited in a room for 15 minutes in lieu of visiting the dog.

In the control group, only 3.6% of them experienced pain relief—a small number. This suggests that the pet therapy visit had a true effect on about one in four people.

The Science Behind Animal-Assisted Therapy for Children

Research suggests that children too may experience pain improvement when undergoing pet therapy.

In a 2018 study, a group of 24 children diagnosed with leukemia and solid tumors participated in animal-assisted therapy sessions with a Labrador retriever and a golden retriever. During three 30-minute sessions, the children did activities with the dogs, such as brushing their fur, playing fetch, feeding them, and walking with them.

The children rated their pain before and after the sessions using the FACES pain scale. Results revealed a significant improvement in pain levels as well decreased irritation and stress.

How Animal-Assisted Therapy Eases Pain

At this time, it's unclear precisely why therapy visits with a pet can help ease the pain. Experts have suggested a number of potential links, and it may be a unique combination of these that leads to pain improvement. For example, visits with a therapy dog have been found in studies to:

  • Reduce stress hormones like epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol
  • Increase endorphin levels (endorphins are the body's natural opiates)
  • Increased levels of oxytocin, a hormone that can alter a person's stress response and pain experience (oxytocin is the hormone released during childbirth)
  • Improve mood, which may secondarily improve pain

Other Benefits 

In addition to a decrease in pain, research shows that pet therapy can also improve mood and reduce anxiety, agitation, and fear in adults. In children, research has found that pet therapy can decrease emotional distress during a painful medical procedure and provide a calmness to children with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Therapy visits with dogs have also been shown in studies to reduce self-reported stress and heart rate. Self-esteem and motivation have also been reported to be improved with pet therapy, as has cognitive functioning in individuals with dementia. Still, many researchers acknowledge more research is needed.

There is also research suggesting that animals may be able to predict migraines, seizures, low glucose levels, and even cancer, possibly through their keen sense of smell.

Potential Risks 

Of course, introducing a dog, cat, or other animals into a hospital, outpatient clinic, nursing home, or home setting does have its risks, albeit small. Pet animals can harbor various pathogens, including parasites and fungi. Still, research shows that pet owners can minimize the transmission of potential infections by avoiding licks and practicing good hand hygiene.

That being said, if a person has a suppressed immune system (for example, someone undergoing chemotherapy or someone with diabetes), there is likely a bit more risk involved. Talking with your doctor before undergoing pet therapy is best to ensure it is OK for you.

Finally, using common sense goes a long way here. In other words, avoid kissing the pets and be diligent about washing your hands thoroughly after contact with an animal. In the end, the purpose is to relax and enjoy your time with the pet. If you find the experience too stressful, that's OK — pet therapy is not for everyone.

A Word From Verywell

It's important to remember that pet therapy is a complementary therapy, meaning it is generally used in addition to another therapy (or therapies) to improve a person's well-being or specific health concern.

In other words, when managing chronic pain, multiple interventions are almost always needed, and pet therapy is simply one option. Other options may include medication, physical therapy, muscle relaxation, mindfulness meditation, hypnosis, and/or cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Remember too, what works for one person may not work for someone else. This is especially true when it comes to treating chronic pain disorders, which often uniquely affect people.

Remain resilient in your efforts to find a therapy regimen that works for you, and be open to newer treatments as your pain disorder evolves.

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