Pets And Pain Management
Every year, one-half of all working Americans admit to having back pain symptoms. In fact, according to the National Cancer for Health Statistics in 2006, one in every four Americans, approximately 76.2 million, have received pain medications one way or the other and even millions more suffer from acute pain. Anything that can make this less frightening is definitely a good thing. But can pets do that?
Those of us who love pets already know the impact a pet can have on our lives, especially when they provide a sense of security and unconditional love when we need it the most. But the idea that animals can have a healing effect on us is certainly appealing when you consider close relationship between human and animals throughout the most of recorded history. This relationship still continues today and has now proven to be a therapeutic modality known as pet therapy.
Pet therapy involves the use of interaction with trained animals to help a person recover from or cope with health issues by improving the individual’s physical, emotional and social well-being, thus enhancing self-esteem, providing comfort, helping with anxiety issues, and facilitating healing. Pet therapy also includes animal-assisted activities which has a more general purpose such as providing enjoyment and comfort for people in long-term care.
The use of the therapeutic value of the human-animal bond in alleviating pain and associated symptoms dates back to the 90s’, when an army corporal brought his dog to a hospital to cheer wounded soldiers. The idea was a successful one that the dog continued to comfort others for 12 more years. Also, as stated by the journal Annals of Long-Term Care, Florence Nightingale was the first to recognize and explore the therapeutic potential of the relationship between animals and humans in the 1800 when she discovered that pets reduced anxiety in psychiatric patients and children.
There are also several other historical accounts that includes the use of animals to enhance the morale or engage the attention of the elderly and to help people with disabilities improve their skills. However, it wasn’t until the latter part of the 20th century that more investigations were made to find out more on how the human-animal relationship could help the therapy process. The first programs to certify animals for therapy was finally introduced in the late 1980s. Now, you will find animals in therapeutic programs in many different settings, from hospitals, pain treatment plans, treatment program for people with psychiatric issues, to substance abuse programs, and more. Any animal may be used for the purpose of pet assisted therapy, from cats, guinea pigs and rabbits, to horses and dogs, and even dolphins. But the most commonly used animals are dogs. The type of animal chosen for a patient depends on the strategies and therapeutic goals of the individual’s treatment plan.
Several studies have shown that by simply petting an animal, a depression patient’s brain can be triggered to release chemicals known as endorphins that produce a calming effect. This can help alleviate pain, reduce stress, and improve your overall psychological state. Endorphins are chemicals produced by the body to counteract the body’s feeling of pain by creating a sense of pleasure rather than pain.
In 2012, a study was carried out in a pain management clinic to investigate the effects of pets on patients with chronic pain. Some of the patients were allowed brief therapy dog visits during their time in a waiting room, while the others were not. The researchers found out there was a significant improvement in pain, fatigue, stress, and mood, for the patients who received the intervention. On the other hand, there was no improvement in the case of those who did not receive the therapy dog visits. Again, a follow-up study was done in 2013 with the methods and settings quite similar to that of the previous study. The study was carried out with fibromyalgia patients, a condition characterized by chronic widespread joints and muscle pain that is accompanied by fatigue, sleep problems, memory, and mood issues. The results were quite similar to the previous one. There were significant improvements in terms of pain, mood, and measures of distress for patients who got therapy dog visits but it was not so with the patients who didn’t.
A research was also carried out by Maggie O’Haire of Purdue University who reviewed 14 clinical trials on the effects of pet therapy on children suffering from autism spectrum disorders. Together, these studies measured 30 different outcomes variables. From the results of the study, it was found that the children with autism who underwent pet therapy, showed significant improvements on 27 of the 30 outcomes measures.
Another study to consider is the one that investigated the effect of short visits with therapy dogs on acute pain. This study was carried out with patients who were recovering from total joint replacement surgery. Those patients who participated in daily visits with the therapy dogs required less pain medication than patients who did not receive the therapy.
The Healing Power of Touch
The key aspect of focus here is touch. Time and time again, physical contact has proven to be healthy for both humans and animals. Touch is a very simple but powerful and effective tool that can be applied and utilized in different settings and occasions and provide people with a feeling of love, familiarity, and trust.
Several studies have investigated why touch has such powerful and overwhelming characteristics on people. One study conducted at the University of California Los Angeles(UCLA) showed that physical contact with another person or animal triggers the release a hormone called oxytocin in our system. Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter that increases compassion and generosity, creates social bonds, and builds trust. It plays a large role in human development. This means that the simplest of touches can facilitate all the positive effects that comes with oxytocin. Now, considering this, it becomes clear why touch can be utilized in a therapeutic way.
Apart from oxytocin, touch also facilitates a reduction in stress hormones at the same time, namely cortisol. An increase in serotonin, which is found in anti-pain medications and antidepressants is also triggered.
Therapy Animals Are Not Service Animals
It is important to know that there is a difference between therapy and service animals. Service animals are working animals, not pets. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability.
This means that service dogs work to help their owners perform tasks they cannot perform on their own because of their disability. They are also trained to behave properly in public places. Therapy Dogs are similar in that they also receive extensive training, but they have a completely different type of job from service dogs. Their responsibilities are to provide psychological or physiological therapy to individuals other than their handlers. These are dogs that have stable temperaments, friendly, and easy-going personalities. Typically, they visit various institutions like hospitals, schools, hospices, psychotherapy offices, nursing homes and more. Therapy dogs may be trained for a variety of jobs, but unlike their service dog counterparts, therapy dogs are encouraged to interact with humans, be sociable and engaging while they’re on-duty.
Because pet therapy builds on the pre-existing human-animal bond, interacting with a gentle, friendly dog can have significant benefits. It can help reduce blood pressure and improve overall cardiovascular health.
Pet therapy can also significantly reduce anxiety, pain, fatigue and depression in people who experience a range of health issues. The benefits of pet therapy extend beyond the person receiving it. People such as friends and family members who stay around during a dog therapy visit also experience better health.
Some of the benefits of animal-assisted therapy include:
- Improved balance
- diminishes overall physical pain
- Increased focus and attention
- Increased self-esteem and ability to care for oneself
- increases joint movement and improves recovery time
- Reduced blood pressure, depression, and risk of heart attack or stroke
- Increased trust, empathy and teamwork
- Enhanced problem-solving skills
- Reduced need for medication
- Improved social skills
Other benefits of pet therapy include:
- decreasing loneliness and isolation by giving you a companion
- reducing boredom, making you happier and lessening depression
- reducing anxiety because of its calming effects
- helps children overcome speech and emotional disorders
- improving the relationship between you and your healthcare provider
Also, many children, teens and adults enjoy working with animals, thus pet therapy can be an effective method of treating individuals who are resistant to medication, or those who have difficulty accessing their emotions or expressing themselves in talk therapy.
This way, pet therapy can
- help children focus better
- improve literacy skills
- provide non-stressful, non-judgmental environment
- increase self-confidence
Who and When Should You Consider Pet Therapy?
Some of the biggest risks of pet therapy, especially in medical facilities, involves safety and sanitation. Many institutions and health care facilities have strict rules regarding pet therapy. The rules are put in place to ensure that the animals are vaccinated, clean, are well-trained and are well screened for behavior and health. Although, there are little or no records of human injury, it can still occur when unsuitable animals are used. Also, people who are allergic to animal dander may have reactions during pet therapy. Injury may also happen to animals if they are not handled properly. In some cases, people may become possessive of the animals helping them and be reluctant to give them up after a session. This can result in low self-esteem and depression. Therefore, an animal’s owner and handler should also be trained to help ensure a positive experience.
Pet therapy can take place in a variety of settings, including prisons, hospitals, nursing homes, therapeutic boarding schools for teens and mental health facilities. It can be in the form of individuals or in groups, and in most cases, are led by a qualified therapist or professional with specialized expertise. This form of therapy can also be used in non-medical settings such as community programs and universities to help people deal with stress and anxiety.
A successful pet therapy depends on establishing realistic goals and expectations and meeting those goals. You’ll need to discuss such goals with your doctor or therapist at the beginning of your treatment. You should also discuss how to reach those goals and how long it will take. This way, he’ll be able to monitor your progress and help you stay focused to meet your goals. If your progress is slower or faster than expected, he may alter your treatment plan.
We all know that having a pet can be a big responsibility, when you consider the time, commitment, and the money you have to spend to maintain them. If you find all these difficult for you, then you don’t have to worry or give up. There are plenty of ways you can interact with animals without owning one. There are some therapists have a dog in their office, serving as a tool to quell anxiety in the space and inject a dose of happiness. Thus, creating an environment that is overall more productive for dialogue.
If seeing a therapist is not something you are interested in doing, then consider visiting your friend’s dog! You can start by taking them on a walk. You can also volunteer at your local shelter and play with the puppies who are looking for homes.
Happiness, companionship, balance, self-confidence… the list is really endless. Consider pet therapy today as you work to manage and recover from your pain.
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