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Spoonie's Best Friend: The Healing Power of Animals

Medically reviewed by the Healthline Medical Review Team on November 27, 2017Written by Kirsten Schultz on November 27, 2017
Support animals

In 2014, after our wedding, my husband and I adopted two guinea pigs. Today, Gus Gus and Jaq are my co-workers, babies, and best friends. For the last year, they’ve kept me as well as possible while I dealt with stress and a growing list chronic illnesses. As a family, we also had to deal with the death of their brother Oreo.

guinea pigs

Left: Gus Gus; top right: Jaq; bottom right: Oreo

It’s incredible how much Gus Gus and Jaq support my health and well-being. They help me stay active, keep me company, and improve my mood. Better yet, they make me smile.

If you’ve never had guinea pigs, you might not guess how they encourage you to exercise. But taking care of them requires a lot of activity!

They need to be physically engaged and played with. They need to be kept entertained, on top of being kept clean. I get on the floor and play with them several times a week. It’s good for me to get moving — and fun for them to play.

My pain levels improve, as does my attitude. I feel better prepared to tackle medical appointments, new treatments, and more, as long as I know that my little buddies are waiting for me at home.

Getting snuggles from our boys helps me rest, which is something I hardly do otherwise. They also give me a reason to get up and get moving on days when my depression threatens to take over.

Like many people living with mental illness, I find that my pets help me on my worst mental health days. When I’m dealing with PTSD-related flashbacks, for example, I’m can hold them and calm down.

I’m not alone. I’ve spoken to other people with chronic illnesses who feel just as strongly about their furry loved ones as I feel about mine. One thing all of our stories have in common is how much our pets improve our quality of life. That’s no coincidence. In fact, plenty of research suggests that pets can boost our health in measurable ways, such as by lowering pain levels and blood pressure.

Do you have a pet who brightens your day? Or are you thinking about adopting one? Take a moment to get inspired by these stories from people who understand the difference a furry friend can make.

RM and Dobbins

Cats are companion animals that researchers have studied for their potential to improve the health and well-being of their owners. Owning a cat may even reduce your risk of a heart attack.

RM, who has anxiety and depression, shared the story of how their cat Dobbins has been a source of support during tough moments. RM has now gone through the process of having Dobbins declared an emotional support animal.

“She originally came into my life as a foster cat the summer after I graduated college. I wound up leaving my hometown two weeks after I graduated, and moving into an apartment of my own. I also had a new job. I was so glad to have the company of a cat.

“Around that time, my depression flared up majorly, and sometimes I could barely get out of bed. Dobbins was always there — making me get up to feed her, purring in my ear, and falling asleep directly on top of me. Her unconditional love got me through some tough times.

Kristin, Keely, and Ranger

Dogs have been “best friends” with humans for thousands of years. But some dogs go beyond friendship, and provide people with direct support and care. Blogger Kristin Tousignant lives with a list of chronic illnesses, including lupus. Her dog Ranger acts like a support dog despite having no professional training.

“I was never a dog person. Then we got a puppy, named Keely, around my diabetes diagnosis. Then I bought that puppy a puppy, named Ranger, for her birthday. Ranger is with me all the time and will lean against my sore hip as a furry heating pad. His recent thing is walking me into the bathroom in the middle of the night. He makes sure I’m OK and goes back to lay down. He’s my buddy, my companion when I’m alone.”

Emily and Bruce

Dogs need a lot of physical activity, so it makes sense that they can help keep their owners active. In one study, dogs even helped people stick to a regular walking program. Emily Bradley credits her beloved boxer, Bruce Wayne, with helping her stay active. They’ve been inseparable for the last two years.

“I adopted a 5-year-old boxer, Bruce, in the summer of 2015. Having been diagnosed with Still’s disease, I was searching for a reason to keep moving and stay motivated. That led to a 4 a.m. decision to submit an application to our local boxer rescue.

“Four weeks later, I brought this horse-sized-dog home. Every morning, I have a reason to get up and get walking, and I have to look that reason right in the eyes. On bad days, Bruce will let me hold his harness while we walk and help balance me by leaning his torso against my leg. On good days, we walk trails, run around the greenway, and destroy ALL the Frisbees!

“No matter what kind of day I’m having, Bruce keeps me active and moving — something that is so critical for someone with a rheumatic disease. Without Bruce, it would be too easy to give up on physical activity because it’s exhausting and painful. He is the most important tool for keeping my mental and physical health in check, and an invaluable resource as I navigate life with my disease.

“It’s true that I rescued Bruce, but most days, I feel like Bruce rescued me. My time with Bruce is not unique — the healing power of animals is not lost on the chronic illness community. Whether a service dog or an emotional support animal — or just a ‘best friend/fur-child’ — the impact of having a pet beside you during the tough moments of your disease is immeasurable. They bring a little light to the dark days, a lot of laughter, and an enormous amount of love.”

Rachael, Shiloh, and Riley

It’s well known that dogs have an incredible sense of smell, but we don’t always hear as much about how sensitive dogs are to human needs and emotions.

Rachael Rose lives with indolent systemic mastocytosis (ISM), a rare disease that can cause persistent skin lesions, pain, digestive issues, and severe allergic reactions. She says that sometimes, it seems like her intuitive beagles know exactly what she needs. Working from home, she’s found comfort in Shiloh and Riley.

“They love to play and go for walks. But dogs are also so intuitive, and they just seem to sense when I’m not feeling well. When that happens, they’re just as happy cuddling and keeping me company.

“For me, one of the hardest parts of having ISM has been the fatigue and brain fog that, during a flare-up, can last for days or weeks at a time. It can feel really isolating, especially since I love going out and being social. I find a lot of comfort in knowing that I always have great company.”

Why are pets so good for your health?

There’s a growing body of research on the ways pets can improve your health and well-being. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, having a pet could potentially help:

  • decrease your cholesterol and triglyceride levels
  • reduce feelings of loneliness
  • boost physical activity

The question remains: Where do these benefits come from? One theory is that spending time with your pet may increase levels of oxytocin, a feel-good hormone linked to bonding, parenting, and reducing fear. In one study, dog owners who interacted with their furry pals for 30 minutes showed higher levels of oxytocin.

Another theory is that pets provide companionship, along with more opportunities to socialize with other people, which in turn improves health. Isolation can be common when living with chronic illnesses, but there are many ways pets can help owners feel less lonely and more loved. Even petting a dog can provide a small boost to your immune function, according to one small study.

The takeaway

Given the potential health benefits of pets, you might be thinking about snagging a fuzzy buddy of your own — if you don’t have one already! However, if you’re considering a first pet, or a new pet, be sure to research ethical ways to adopt in your area.

And if now isn’t the right time for you to have a pet, don’t despair! Consider looking into pet therapy programs in your area or call up a friend who has a pet. Soon enough, you may be enjoying some quality time with a furry friend.


Kirsten Schultz is a writer from Wisconsin who challenges sexual and gender norms. Through her work as a chronic illness and disability activist, she has a reputation for tearing down barriers while mindfully causing constructive trouble. She recently founded Chronic Sex, which openly discusses how illness and disability affect our relationships with ourselves and others, including — you guessed it — sex! You can learn more about Kirsten and Chronic Sex at chronicsex.org and follow her on Twitter.

This content represents the opinions of the author and does not necessarily reflect those of Teva Pharmaceuticals. Similarly, Teva Pharmaceuticals does not influence or endorse any products or content related to the author's personal website or social media networks, or that of Healthline Media. The individual(s) who have written this content have been paid by Healthline, on behalf of Teva, for their contributions. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

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