Life changed forever for Joshua Marino when, while he was serving in the army in Iraq, insurgents attacked his base. Three mortars exploded very near him, sending shock waves throughout his body. The force shook his brain, leaving him with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Marino returned to Kansas to resume his work in satellite communications systems operations, but he was suffering from post-concussive syndrome and constant headaches. Marino had trouble focusing, he forgot details of the job he had once known so well and he failed to perform up to the standards expected of him.
Because Marino’s injuries were “invisible,” as he says, colleagues did not understand why he could not focus, and they labeled him a “shammer.” Without support and feeling hopeless, Marino fell into a deep depression. “I wanted to end it,” he said. “I was done with the pain.”
Marino drafted a goodbye letter on his computer and then, in a “foul mood,” he went downstairs to smoke his last cigarette.
It was raining as Marino sat on the front stoop of his barracks. Then, just as he was about to head back upstairs, he heard a meow.
A black-and-white tuxedo kitten with sea green eyes popped out in front of him. The kitten put his paws on Marino’s lap. He petted the animal, talked and ultimately cried to the kitten. It was the first living thing Marino had talked to without feeling judged in a long time, he says, and he felt immense relief after expressing his feelings.
Instead of following his former plan for that night, Marino visited with the kitten—whom he later named Scout—and continued to do the same night after night with tuna in hand.
“When I really needed the reassurance the most, that’s what Scout provided,” Marino says.
Ultimately, things started looking up for Marino, who is now 38. He got married, adopted Scout and moved back home to Pittsburgh. He now helps other veterans in his role as an education and outreach coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh’s Human Engineering Research Laboratories.
Marino still deals with chronic headaches, but having a pet has helped him with the pain. You might be having a really rotten day, he says, but if you see your pet running around the house, you can’t help but smile. (Read more about Marino, Scout and the healing power of animals.)
Marino is not alone. Initial results from a University of Calgary study show that companion animals help reduce chronic pain.
“They have seen good results from people they’ve surveyed, knowing that they have an animal that can sense their pain and be responsive to it. It’s very therapeutic to them,” says Erin Askeland, an animal health and behavior consultant with Camp Bow Wow, a boarding camp for dogs in Massachusetts.
Feeding, walking and keeping pets on a schedule can benefit people who are in pain or depressed by helping to keep their minds off the pain. It “creates a little bit of a good distraction,” Askeland notes.
Learn more about how having a pet can help you manage your chronic pain by taking this quiz.
1. Chronic pain is a constant stressor on one’s body that leads to the release of the stress hormone cortisol. What is one way that increased cortisol levels do NOT affect one’s body?
A. Increase anxiety
B. Allow for restful sleep at night
C. Increase heart rate
D. Increase blood pressure
2. A pet helps decrease a person’s stress level.
True or False
3. People with fibromyalgia do not benefit from therapy dogs.
True or False
4. Pet ownership—particularly dog ownership—may reduce cardiovascular risk.
True or False
1. B. Increased cortisol does not lead to a restful night’s sleep. Chronic pain acts as a persistent stressor on the body, so the body releases cortisol, says Antje Beth-Joslin, DVM, a veterinarian who consults for Dogtopia, a U.S. and Canadian dog boarding company.
The release of cortisol triggers a “fight or flight” response, says Beth-Joslin, which increases blood pressure, heart rate, anxiety and vigilance.
“You’re always on,” Beth-Joslin says. “A lot of times, you cannot get a good night’s sleep because your body just cannot get to that relaxed state.”
2. True. Beth-Joslin explains that evidence suggests that a human-animal bond affects the release of positive neurochemicals such as dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins, which can play a part in counteracting the cortisol level.
“When you release oxytocin in your brain, it increases the calming effect. It kind of gives you happiness feelings and trustworthy feelings,” explains Beth-Joslin.
It’s been over a decade since Marino’s injury, and he still has a headache all day every day. He now takes a combination of medications, but it does not take away the pain. He now has four cats and two ferrets. When one of his cats is on his lap, it becomes a distraction from the pain.
“And the more I can distract myself, the better I feel,” Marino says.
The thing about chronic pain, Beth-Joslin says, is that it’s always there. If you can put your mind on something else, it feels less painful, “but if you’re always thinking about it, it’s like your body’s constantly focusing on it.” A pet helps take your mind off the pain.
Scout has passed away, and now Marino has four other cats. “I miss Scout every day, but he still has a special place in my heart,” he says.
3. False. A study of patients with fibromyalgia who spent time with therapy dogs in the waiting room prior to a medical appointment demonstrated improved measures of pain, mood and other types of distress afterward.
People in chronic pain tend to become socially isolated as well, Beth-Joslin says. Having a dog can help people get out and become more social just by taking the dog for a walk. “They’re great conversation starters,” Askeland says.
Pets can help people dealing with chronic pain feel less isolated by providing a nonjudgmental ear, companionship and unconditional love, Askeland notes.
4. True. Pet ownership, particularly dog ownership, may lead to reduced cardiovascular risk. A 2013 scientific statement from the American Heart Association assessed studies of pet ownership and systemic blood pressure and found a link between pet ownership and lower blood pressure.
“For the majority of people, having a pet in their lives increases overall health and well-being,” Beth-Joslin emphasizes.
Want to learn more about how pets can help reduce stress and pain? Read our “Pets for Pain Relief” series.