In 2019, a groundbreaking study published in the Journal of Applied Gerontology confirmed something many pet owners suspected: pets can help quell chronic pain! It’s good news considering the fact that over 20 percent of US adults have chronic pain and about 17 million have high-impact chronic pain. Recent studies have shown that pets can soothe pain in two ways: first, as a vital support for cognitive-behavioral chronic pain self-management, and secondly, as an independent means of relief. Below are just a few of the most fascinating findings on the link between pet ownership and pain relief.

Pets and Cognitive-Behavioral Chronic Pain Self-Management

The Journal of Applied Gerontology explored how pet ownership helps people with chronic pain to adopt cognitive-behavioral self-management strategies. These strategies essentially tap into the link between human thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) encourages people to reframe their thoughts, so they can embrace healthier behaviors. It also works the other way around, however. By experimenting with new, most positive behaviors, people can also view a situation through a clearer lens. 

Study Findings

The study showed that pets are a vital tool for CBT success in five main ways. The first is mood management. Chronic pain is often accompanied by depression and anxiety—two conditions that affect mood and worse the intensity and duration of pain. The study revealed that pets enhanced mood by making owners feel loved and needed, as well as by offering them companionship and unwavering support. Pets also helped people laugh more—and various studies have shown that laughter itself truly is “the best medicine.” The findings also showed that pets helped participants relax (which enabled them to avoid catastrophic thinking). Pets are additionally linked to a higher level of physical activity. Most of the dog owners in the study remarked that their dogs motivated them to walk regularly—an activity which is known to be beneficial for pain. Behavioral activation was another area in which pets played a key role. Participants spoke of how their pets frequently enticed them to get up from the sofa, go outside, and do things that they didn’t initially feel like doing. Finally, pets enhanced participants’ relationships with others. Considering the fact that pain is linked to social isolation, the fact that pets boost interaction is no small feat.

Pets at Work

The above study delved into many scenarios in which pets aid people who are bedridden or at home during most of the day, but they can also help reduce work-related pain. Studies suggest that up to 40 percent of workers experience chronic pain. The causes of pain are numerous. They include sitting in the same position for hours on end, repetitive strain injuries, poor posture, and standing for long periods. While ergonomic furniture, medical treatment, and exercise can help employees reduce their pain, so, too, can pets. Owners who bring their pets to work are more active, heading outside during breaks instead of sitting for even longer. Pets also lead to greater social interaction at work, and they provide companionship to the legions of remote workers who have now overtaken various industries.

The Effect of Pet Interaction on Pain

Pets can do much more than kick-start healthier behaviors. They can also help quell pain itself. One study showed that petting a cat while being sedentary can have similar effects on the human body as pain therapy. Another study found that a 10-minute visit from a therapy dog could reduce the level of pain experience by patients in an emergency department. Not only that, but these visits also significantly reduced the symptoms of depression and anxiety. Many studies have also shown that companion animals provide their humans with social and emotional support, and give them a greater purpose in life. 

Evidence has revealed time and time again that pets can be valuable allies in the battle against chronic pain. From enhancing cognitive-behavioral self-management strategies to providing emotional support and relief, pets offer multifaceted benefits that can significantly improve the lives of those with chronic pain conditions. Pets can make you laugh, inspire you to be more active, and reduce the impact of social isolation. As more studies continue to shed light on the positive impact of pet ownership, it is becoming increasingly clear that our furry friends are not only companions but also powerful healers whose benefits we are yet to fully understand.