Pet Therapy Reduces Fibromyalgia Pain

by Kristin Thorson, Editor, Fibromyalgia Network
Posted: November 29, 2012

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 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.

53 Responses to Pet Therapy Reduces Fibromyalgia Pain

  1. glenys says:

    I have had FMS since 1993, and when I had my heart attack in 2009, my dog had had pups. One pup in particular was very placid. When I got home from hospital I would sit and hold this puppy. An hour later she still hadn’t moved. It was a great way to relax and relieve the FMS and the pup became my cardiac rehab. She knows when I become stressed, and jumps at me to pick up and cuddle, to rest.

  2. Larissa says:

    I have a dog and three cats. They are all wonderful. Not only do they always make me smile and laugh, but they also know when I am in pain or depressed. All four will come to me and give me extra lovies when they sense it, and they are very gentle. They are my little angels and I am grateful for them every day.

  3. Kim Brubaker says:

    I have a small dog and three cats. The dog is a shihtzu and bichon mix that doesn’t shed he is about 15 lbs and loves to go with me when I run errands. He is a bit stubborn so house training is about 85%. The cats are a lot of entertainment when they get wound up. They shed, so hair can be a problem. They are 100% litter box trained. I would be lost without them.

  4. Dr. Lorri Greene says:

    As a psychologist, I have an amazing cat, Kali, who loves to sit on people’s laps in my office. She has a calming effect on everyone, even the men I see. I also have fibromyalgia, so when she is not sitting on their laps, she sits on mine. She sleeps on my side of the bed, and I fall asleep more easily, which is difficult with fibromyalgia. I know she helps me with my own pain, as well as…

    • Lisa says:

      I have had animals all my life growing up on a dairy farm. I then worked. For a mixed practice veterinarian. There is no question there is something calming about having pets.
      As a FMS suffer yourself and being a psychologist do you think talking to someone has any benefit. I can talk to my GP he’s very easy to talk to. My ins. Co. Thinks I should be seeing a psychiatrist. Thank

  5. Sherry says:

    Always adopted adult male housecats so tried 2 kitties after vet suggested they’d have each other to talk to. What a happy, chaotic, house/life changing zoo they have provided me over the last 8 years that I would’ve never chosen on my own. A marked improvement for me, for all of us. Love the furry purry human chaos more than I ever imagined possible…again. ;)

  6. Danielle says:

    I truly believe this to be true. I do not suffer from fibromyalgia put i have depression and my animals help me on my bad days and make me happier on my good days. Pets are amazing and that is why i have 2 dogs and 4 cats. I am an animal lover and i think that this article is great.

  7. Rozanne Moreo says:

    I have 2 dogs, a Bischa-Poo and a Welsh Corgi/Dachound Mix and I take one at a time out for a small walk, which helps me with some exercise. I enjoy watching them play and the Bischa-Poo (Jazzy) is always ready to give me kisses and her favorite place to sit is attached to my right leg. I would say, yes, pets are a help to fibromyalgia.

  8. Nancy says:

    My animal companion is a twelve-year-old Weimaraner, and I have no idea what I’d have done without him ever since I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. Although quite energetic and challenging when young, they are one of the most loving and smart breeds, and very attached to their human companions. He loves to nap, and visits my 93 year-old mother every day with me, so he plays therapy dog.

    • Belen says:

      Up until a month ago, I had a 15 year old German Short Haired Pointer (115 Lb) boy therapy boy. He was the best ever. Really miss him. I know what you mean. Large pups are just so much fun.

  9. Vicky Egge says:

    I have 4 rescued dogs of different size.The smallest is 45 pounds and the largest is 120 pounds.When I was first diagnosted 10 years ago my Dr said having a dog would be very good for me.They will force you out of bed in the morning and make you walk whether you feel like it or not.I started helping with rescue work and it has brought nothing but joy to my life.

    • Luan says:

      Vicky I can relate to your comment – I had one very challenging young Border Collie, which started my interest in behavior, shaping, training, and Rescue. Fast forward 17 years, and there is very little remaining of my “old life”. I now operate a Boarding Kennel and Border Collie Rescue. They drag me out of bed each a.m. no matter the pain or sleepless night and I love them for it!

  10. L Rheinstein says:

    I’ve had Fibro since 1986 the severity has come and gone over the years…I rescued a Kitten 5 months ago….He is a Gift from God….as I also am a survivor and still take a chemo pill daily I have a VERY HARD time with my stomach. Service cat Nicky seems to know and helps to calm the spasms and pain, it’s truly amazing.

  11. Jerre Roller says:

    I have 3 cats and they are my little angels. When I came back from a recent hospital stay I got hugged from all 3. When I go to bed, they all pile on top of me and I go to sleep easier, as long as no play fighting breaks out. Their love makes the FM pain easier to deal with.

  12. Faith says:

    Having an animal that loves you is truly a wonderful thing, until she dies. I lost my beloved Meisha (cat) after a long 17 1/2 years, about 6 years into my illness (FM), and it just about killed me! The pain after TWO years is still too fresh in my mind to even consider getting another cat. Don’t know if I can take that kind of pain again. Crying as I write this, so I guess I’m still not ready…

    • Lee says:

      Faith, I also had a poodle for 16-1/2 years. She has been gone 5 years and I still cry when I think of her. I waited 2 years to get my little malti-poo, her name is Lexie. She is my constant buddy and is so patient in the morning when I am so very slow moving. Right now she is on my lap sleeping, love her so.much. So I would say its time for you to share your love with another baby,

    • Staciee says:

      I understand your pain I’ve lost two cats and it’s so hard but the best thing is too adopt more cats is how I got through! I have six now I love them all dearly and they help me smile when I’m sad, my one boy jasper climbs all over me and it hurts lol but they do help you get through and all they ask for is food and love, I would have more if could afford it. Fibromyalgia and CFS since 1997…

  13. Marilyn Hourihan says:

    I foster greyhounds especially the ones that have been returned to the kennel for whatever reason (as they are older, have a bit less energy and are accustomed to living in a house). Greyhounds, if exercised properly (a nice walk every day) are more like cats. They sleep most of the day. They are usually very quiet (there are exceptions) and easy to be around. I love them.

  14. Marilyn Hourihan says:

    If you foster you can choose when to have the dog in your home and they usually stay about a month sometimes longer. You get the benefits of having a dog in your life when you choose . Greyhounds are a special breed that used to be killed once their racing career was over and now are adopted. So it’s a win win situation all round.

  15. Jan says:

    I consider my dog my service animal. She gets me out of bed with a sneeze in the morning, is always happy, forgives me when I can’t take her for a walk and loves me unconditionally. She makes me laugh and loves to go in the car. Maggie is a cairn terrier…a non shedder and tough. Can’t imagine my life without a pet. I’d recommend adopting an older dog as puppies can be physically draining.

  16. Rochelle Grimes says:

    I cannot even imagine my life without my Charlie,a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. They are bred to be lap dogs, so when you sit down, up in your lap they go. He licks my tears when I cry due to depression and pain; and serves as a heating pad on the front of my body. He also sleeps right next to me in bed. His unconditional love and loyalty mean the world to me.

  17. Lynette says:

    I have fibromyalgia. Thank God for our 6 and a half cats! Daughter bought 2 for £50 each as they were not treated to well. Then she called and she found 1 on rubbishdump. That one had 3kittens. The neighbours one has moved in thus the half. (think they have left) but it is ok. The cats get me out of bed. They entertain me. They are very loving. Would not be without them. Love all of them loads.

  18. Donna says:

    I have fm &Cfs, although I took classes for training a therapy dog before getting my Dog, Gracie .and we trained mucho classes. However, she does all the work. we specialise w/ special needs youth. Visit the sick. All know I may cancel for my own needs. When up to it, since I, too am poor(not compared to other countries);we visit homelss ladies, and children. Gracie HELPS ME the Most bymy side

  19. jami says:

    I have 3 dogs and a cat, at night when my back pain flares up, my 60lb lab/pit mix snuggles up against me, the pressure that is applied and the heat that is generated is the only thing that lets me fall asleep some nights.

    All of my animals bring a smile to my face and they get me out of bed on those days I don’t think I can. Couldn’t imagine life without them!

  20. Grace Sullivan says:

    We had tons of pets growing up. Now that I have been diagnosed with fibromyalgia I am thinking a therapy dog or a service dog might be a big help. A service animal is expensive and then it’s the cost of their on going care. I am at a loss for ideas right now.

  21. meg says:

    I have a service dog for balance and mobility. She sleeps on my bed at night and is with me all day. She knows when my pain level is high and stays glued to me on those days! She offers unconditional love!

    • Beth says:

      Meg, don,t mind me asking,how old are you? At 49 now, my balance has become a bit worse and I am wondering if it will progress much quicker. I have been struggling with work vs disibility for several years now . My family thinks there is no decision to be made. Just go on disability. But I am your type A constantly going personality until my body quits on me. Wondering if I just give in ?

      • Donna says:

        Try and talk to your employer about working from home a couple of days a week. (in the Washington DC area most people do) That may help control the swings in the pain. It’s better than draining your energy reserves dry. Going on Social Security Disability (SSD) will probably take 12-18 months. You’ll need energy just to deal with the lawyers and the SSD paperwork.

  22. Ruth says:

    I have a wonderful Maltese Lhasa Apso cross who is almost more aware of my fibro than I am! I can be resting on the lounge reading, watching the TV, on another day I can be doing the exact same thing but feeling dreadful and he does everything within his dear little heart to climb up on the lounge (he has short legs) and then lies ontop of me on my side and does not move which causes me no pain

  23. Scrapheapchallenge says:

    I adopted a pet mouse from a local rescue (although I love dogs & cats, and volunteer for German shepherd dog rescue, my other half is allergic to cats & scared of dogs). Monaro my mouse is incredibly easy to care for and his antics always make me smile. If your pain makes dog walkingvetc too much I can definitely recommend adopting a smaller pet from a rescue.

  24. Laura says:

    I have several animals. Chickens, rabbits,dogs,and my fave horses. Ally animals are a blessing everyday. I recently have been very sick with flare ups and it really helps to be around my furry friends. Even though I can’t ride my horses right now just listening to them eat their hay and brushing them calms me. Having a rabbit in my lap is just so relaxing. My chickens provide endless hours of…

  25. Ginnilee says:

    This is what GentleHugs4Paws is all about; I entered the Fibro Network’s Awareness contest in May, and ended up #4 out of the top 5. I’m gathering signed books from my author friends on FB, where they’ll be auctioned off so GH4P can pay the adoption fees & 1st vet visit for young animals who need their rabies shot.

  26. Bev says:

    I have FM , Chronic fatigue, C pain and Sicca syndrome for 18+ years. I worked up until 1 year ago when I came to screaming halt with exhaustion and depression from these curses. I had a KC cavalier,Branwen and a LH chihuahua BJ both fem Both totally devoted to me, both knew when I was no good. I lost them both in the last 12 mths. They definitely helped me and I miss them so much.

  27. Donalda says:

    I have a mixed-breed dog that has been my compaion for four years,she has helped me start walking again and everyday she is my exercise buddy.She always knows when I am going to have a flare-up and is so comforting.When I am in pain,she comes and lays down at the side of the couch and will not let anyone bother me.She makes sure I stand in the sun.After I walk I always feel better.

  28. Nancy A. says:

    My cat is my constant companion and my best friend. I’ve had fibromyalgia for 26 years and worked for many years. I’m now on Social Security Disability and am home most of the time. I don’t get out much anymore. So my cat really helps so much in keeping my spirits up. She loves her “petting times” that we have each day but I wonder if she somehow knows how much it also helps me.

  29. Nancy V says:

    I was diagnosed with fibro in the 90′s and also have RA. I adopted a puppy from a shelter two years ago. She is a Brittany and when I picked her out the lady said, “Do you know what kind of dog she is? She is extremely active and might be too much for you.” I got her anyway. I spend a lot of time in bed and she lays right beside me. When I put her in the backyard she runs as fast as she…

    • Pam says:

      I too have been diagnosed with Fibromyalgia since the 90′s and I have had Brittanies since I was a child. Its true they tend to be very active but they are also very smart and sensitive to our needs. Plus they are a medium size dog with very short tails so are easy for someone with problems to handle. I have noticed since I became symptomatic the Brittanies have become more protective of me.

  30. Tina M Allen says:

    I have dogs that are my companions. Rescued the 1st dog after I became unable to work. He became my company & reason to get out of bed everyday. Knowing the days I could not walk him were not healthy for him, I adopted another from ASPCA. The boys are 2yrs old & exercise each other when I can’t. I tell people I don’t have Drs., I’ve got dogs. The pain & depression are less since I got them.

  31. Angie E says:

    I have had FM for over 15 years. I have two dogs who are wonderful friends and companions. When I’m in pain, they know it; they do silly things to make me laugh, stay close to me and are extra-gentle about jumping or stepping on me :) If I am too painful or depressed to be around people, I have them to keep me company. When I am having a flare, caring for them can be painful, but it’s worth it.

  32. Julianne says:

    I have CFS and Fibromyalgia for 11 years. Having my dogs have been a comfort to me. On bad days and when I have fibro flares, my flares tends to last 2-3 months, my Jack Russell Terriers will lay with me if I need to lay down for a while. They seem attentive to what I need. Having pets when you have fibro helps give some comfort, they offer unconditional love you cant get anywhere else.

  33. Paula says:

    I hesitated to adopt a dog after being diagnosed with FM. We lost our precious Pomeranian a couple years before. I was afraid I would not be able to care for another dog. However, a 10 yo rescue poodle became available and I was told she was “made for me”. After having her for two days, I knew we belonged together. Sadie is the best thing that has happened to me since being diagnosed.

  34. Sherry says:

    I want a dog so much, but my husband and my son are allergic….yes, even the hypoallergenic ones! If I got a dog, I would have to get rid of my husband….and well…he wouldn’t appreciate being replaced by a dog. Husband is really a keeper and he vacuums and does the dishes plus the laundry. Dogs can’t do that!

  35. Betty Huard says:

    I have 2 dogs and 2 cats. Biscuit, a shepherd, Rocky, a mini American Eskimo, Max and Ruby, my two cats. I love them all but the cleaning of the litter box is the hardest part about owning them. Can barely move when I have to get up from cleaning it.
    My son takes the dogs out to do their business so that’s a big help. I will definitely have to be sedated when something happens to my furbabies.

  36. Heidi C says:

    I have several medical issues, starting with Ehlers Danlos and P.o.t.s. I, at age 40 got my very first pet… A Cavachon puppy. I have been absolutely amazed at what she has done for me. She takes my mind off my pain and gives me something to smile about when I am hurting and depressed. I can’t believe I went my whole life without a pet and I can’t imagine not ever having her. Total blessing!

  37. Cathie says:

    I think a dog would help me, I also have developed agoraphobia, it would help with that, too. I have two cats, but they do not give as much love as a dog.

  38. Paulette says:

    I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 2004 after a bad car accident. My husband died in 2006 and between fibro and depression I am a mess. I have 3 dogs. One will lick my knees-she senses when they hurt. I rescued an older dog–she is tiny, perfect for my lap. We just sit on the recliner and rest–so comforting taking care of ones who really need me. All 3 are wonderful and just give love!

  39. jennfer Roberts says:

    I loved reading your posts, I have 3 jack Russel dogs and I also am type 1 diabetic and the dogs love it when my blood sugar drops as they get treats when I have to eat. The older dog has tried to wake me when I have low blood sugar, and protect me when I am unwell. They seem to know when I feel sad or in pain and receive lots of licks and love! could not do with out them!

  40. Kristina says:

    If anyone is looking for a particular breed recommended for cats when it comes to loving and docile, I HIGHLY recommend Ragdolls. I own two of them, and I do not know where I would be without my constant companions. It’s all the love and companionship of a dog, but in a cat. I swear. It works our perfect for my situation and mobility issues, and their ability to sense my emotional needs.

  41. TRACY says:

    i have suffered with fibromyalgia for many years, i had dogs when i was growing up and i have had many in my adult years also, they are very good too have no matter any medical condition, my problem now is i really want another one but i can not afford the vet bills and proper care for a dog, or beleive me i would have one but if a person can not take proper care of them they should not have them

  42. TRACY says:

    if i could get help paying and taking care of them let me know

  43. Jordan G says:

    I have fibromyalgia and I know personally my dog and cat know when I am in pain. They seem to just lay around more and cuddle more. They are more behaved on days when my pain is severe. My dog is only 4 months and one week I was so sick I couldn’t get out of bed and she just layed on the ground and only got up to tell me when she wanted out. Dogs know when we are in pain it is amazing.

  44. Llyn McClure says:

    I have lived with pain (fibro) since 2004 and I am a diagnosed Agoraphobic with an essential tremor. What gets me through the day is my Shih Tzu (carefully chosen for me by her breeder).
    What frustrates me is the lack of recognition for Psychological Service (at least here in Canada). I cannot get service certification for her … what use is it to me if I cannot take her wherever I need to go?

  45. Patti says:

    I had a dog and 4 cats, but only have my Missy cat who is 13. I have had fibro for 20 years and my animals have always helped me get through the day. Now, with just Missy cat, she lays with me every day and night. Petting her calms me down and her snuggling keeps me warm. I can’t imagine life without her. She is shy around other people, but loves laying by my side. Someday, I hope I get a dog.

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