If you have fibromyalgia, you know there’s no quick fix—no pill, procedure, or therapy that quickly makes symptoms disappear.  Fibromyalgia is a condition that relies heavily on combining many types of therapies together, including medications, exercise, nutritional, and non-drug therapies.  Most people with fibromyalgia use complementary and alternative therapies that are designed to supplement and boost the benefits from traditional medicine. A survey from the Mayo Clinic found that the complementary therapies most commonly used for fibromyalgia are exercise, spiritual healing, massage, chiropractic treatment, and supplements.

Another complementary therapy is animal-assisted therapy. Animal-assisted therapy uses animals—typically dogs trained to be obedient, calm, and comforting—to provide therapeutic benefit to people with a wide range of health problems. Think I’m barking up the wrong tree? Research has proven that spending time with a friendly dog caused profound physical and biological changes:

  • Heart rate and blood pressure decrease
  • Breathing rate slows down
  • Stress hormones, like cortisol, are reduced
  • The body’s natural pain killers, endorphins, increase
  • The immune system is boosted

Interestingly, research shows you don’t have to be passionate about pets to get these healthy benefits from ten to fifteen minutes petting a friendly dog.  Animal-assisted therapy with trained dogs, called therapy dogs, has been shown to help people with a wide range of medical conditions. People with autism, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, mental illness, strokes, spinal cord injuries, and more have all been shown to benefit from the therapeutic benefits of time spent with therapy dogs. We decided to see whether therapy dogs might also help people with fibromyalgia. The results of this study were just released in the journal Pain Medicine.

In this study, a trained 40-pound Wheaten Terrier therapy dog was added to a chronic pain waiting area. When patients with fibromyalgia were waiting between or before appointments with doctors or therapists, they could spend time in a traditional waiting room with a television and magazines or they could visit in another room with the therapy dog. People in both groups were surveyed about their symptoms before entering either waiting area. After spending about 15 minutes in either waiting area, people were asked to rate their symptoms again. For this project, 84 people with fibromyalgia spent time with the dog and 49 waited in the traditional waiting area.
Here’s what we found:

  • Spending time in the regular waiting room didn’t make symptoms substantially better or worse.
  • Spending waiting time with a therapy dog significantly reduced pain, anxiety, and distress.

Pain was rated using a scale from zero for no pain to ten for excruciating pain. Research studies typically look for a drop in pain severity of at least two points on this scale to represent what’s called clinically meaningful pain relief. For most people, they would say their pain has become much better when the level has dropped by two points. Clinically meaningful pain relief occurred for one in three people meeting with the therapy dog (34 percent of people) and only 4 percent of people waiting with the television and magazines.  Spending time with the dog also improved people’s moods, with no change in the regular waiting room.

  • Before entering either waiting area, about one in five or six people (20 percent or less) felt calm, pleasant, or cheerful.
  • Feeling calm, pleasant, or cheerful didn’t change after waiting in the regular waiting area.
  • After spending time with the therapy dog, two in three people (over 60 percent) were calm, pleasant, and cheerful.

What did this study teach your doctor? No one would think just spending time with a dog is all you need to do to make fibromyalgia symptoms get better. But spending therapeutic time with a friendly dog can help bring your symptoms down a notch, and that can make an important difference. We found that people felt more relaxed for their appointments, which may make them more likely to have good communication with the doctor and benefit more from other therapy appointments. Healthcare providers might take a lesson from this project and consider adding therapy dogs to their waiting rooms.

What can people with fibromyalgia learn from this study?  If you have a dog at home and have thought, “I feel so much better, less stressed, etc. when I spend some time with my dog,” you’ve just validated this study. People with a pet dog, cat, or another pet often find time with their pets soothing. Now you know that this time does more than simply distract you from your symptoms. Having some Fluffy time may be a good way to help bring symptoms down a bit and may be something to add in before exercise, relaxation, and so forth.
What if you don’t have a pet? You might consider volunteering at your local animal shelter. Shelters are often looking for people to walk dogs or pet kittens and bunnies. Volunteering at a shelter helps you get a therapeutic dose of pet time without the added daily responsibilities of pet ownership.