Man’s best friend may also be his best medicine. Research suggests that pets can improve your health, significantly improve the lives of people with arthritis and may even help to improve their physical condition. Karen Alvarez credits her exercise success to her very active new puppy, Tony. “When it’s just me, it’s easy to skip a walk because I’m tired or it’s hot or my knees hurt,” says Alvarez, 54, who has had rheumatoid arthritis for more than 20 years. “But Tony doesn’t take no for an answer.” Thanks to her dog, Alvarez has been getting 30 minutes of exercise every day and she feels a difference in her body because of it. “I think my arthritis flares up less often and I feel much less helpless and depressed when it does,” she says. A neighbor walks Tony when Alvarez’s arthritis pain worsens, but such help has only been necessary once in the six months since Alvarez has owned her dog.
For Alvarez — and for 72.9 million other households in the United States — pet ownership has its benefits. According to a 2006 study conducted by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, 59% of dog owners and 37% of cat owners believed their pets had a positive impact on their health. And, like Alvarez, 40% of the pet owners surveyed said that owning a pet provided incentive to exercise. Researchers are discovering that pets may provide even more advantages for people with arthritis, including reduced stress and joint pain, improved recovery from surgery, and better overall health.
Pets as good as pills?
Stroking a cat’s soft fur while it purrs in your lap may not seem like taking control of your health, but having a pet may actually improve your physical and emotional well-being. When you have arthritis, these benefits can come in several different forms.
Pets appear to help reduce perceived pain. This means that people who own pets report less physical discomfort and may not need to take as much medicine as people without pets. In a study presented at the annual meeting of the International Society for Anthrozoology in 2009, researchers at Loyola University Health System found that after having total joint-replacement surgery, people needed half as much pain medicine if pet therapy was a part of their recovery. The study also found that people with arthritis were less likely to report joint pain if they owned pets. A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society in 1999 found that people older than 50 who owned pets were more active, reported less stress, and had better overall health than people who didn’t have pets. And research has shown that pets can help reduce stress in their owners, which could translate to fewer flares and less pain for people who have flares in response to stressful situations. In addition, the simple act of petting an animal can lower both blood pressure and heart rate.
There are obvious explanations for some of these benefits. Pets require you to interact with them — they need walks, feedings, attention, playtime, and general care. Even if you aren’t very active on your own, your pet will need you to get up and moving at times. And those little bursts of exercise can play a role in maintaining flexibility and joint health.
Owning a pet can also provide emotional advantages. Depression is a common concern for people with arthritis, particularly for people whose activities are limited or who have persistent or recurring arthritis symptoms. Some research has linked pet ownership to a lower risk of depression. A 1999 UCLA School of Public Health study of men with AIDS found that those who didn’t own a pet were more likely to have depression when compared with men who did have the companionship of a pet. In a 2008 review of self-help strategies for depression, Australian researchers concluded that although there is no evidence that pet ownership has an effect on clinical depression, some research has shown that it can reduce depressive symptoms. The benefits may come not only from the physical activity involved in caring for a pet but also from the emotional bond with and sense of responsibility for the animal.
Pitfalls of pets
Despite its benefits, pet ownership can come with challenges, especially as you get older. According to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year about 21,000 Americans aged 65 or older visit emergency rooms for injuries due to pet-related falls. The falls usually happen when people trip over their dog or a water bowl or other pet item, when they walk their dog, or when they are pushed or pulled by the animal. Cats cause fewer injuries than dogs, but many people trip over their cats as well.
Falls are a concern for older people with arthritis because broken bones can increase pain and contribute to disability and decreased independence. If you have arthritis, you may not have the flexibility and strength to keep yourself from falling if you stumble over your pet. It’s a good idea to speak with your doctor about your physical condition and whether the pros of having a pet outweigh the potential cons.
If you do have or decide to get a pet, be sure your pet has obedience training, and discourage it from napping at your feet or sleeping right next to your bed. It’s also a good idea to stash your pet’s toys in an out-of-the-way spot where they won’t be a tripping hazard.
Although pets won’t cure arthritis, if you are living with chronic pain, they may help you manage your condition better and possibly reduce pain. “I wouldn’t tell a person who has arthritis that he or she needs to go out and get a pet to feel better,” says Aaron Cable, MD, a Los Angeles-based rheumatologist. “But I do think people who have pets may have an advantage when it comes to living with arthritis.”
The human–pet connection is one that researchers continue to explore. Over the past few decades there have been numerous studies examining the role of pets in our health, and more are underway. It’s possible that pets could eventually become an integral part of arthritis treatment, or they may maintain their current status as helpful furry friends. Whatever the future holds, there’s no question that for now, pets like Tony are making a big difference for people like Karen Alvarez. “I could probably do it without him,” Alvarez says, “but I’m glad I don’t have to.”