Let’s face it: Having chronic pain can be debilitating not only physically, but mentally, as well. You never really get used to feeling awful each day. Since I adopted my dogs, they have helped me immensely when it comes to dealing with the effects of my rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

I never thought having a pet would be such an important part of my life, but having them around has had an immeasurable impact on my quality of life. Here are just a few of the ways my dogs have helped me cope with my RA:

There’s nothing more comforting than having a dog curled up next to me, especially if I find myself in the midst of an awful flare. Having my sleeping dog next to me eases my anxiety when I go to bed, too. My dog always lets out a nice sigh when he finds a good spot to settle into for the night. It’s the cutest thing ever, and it warms my heart. My other dog likes to lay up against my back at night. It’s like I’m in a dog sandwich.

A dog’s love is an unconditional one. No matter what I’m feeling, how I look, or whether I’ve showered, my dogs will always love me. In my opinion, this type of love is better than what you get from most humans. I can always depend on my dogs. Their love helps me focus less on my pain — I’m distracted by all the dog kisses!

Keeping active with chronic pain is extremely difficult. I know I would rather be in the fetal position on my couch covered in blankets. But having a dog doesn’t give me a choice. Even on my worst days, I still find myself going for short walks around the block. And going for walks is great not only for my pet, but for me as well. I don’t even realize that I’m exercising. Plus, the joy the dog gets from being outside is contagious. Seeing them happily wagging their tail makes me feel happy, too.

This is what a day with RA looks like »

Coming home from doctor appointments can be emotionally or mentally exhausting. Nothing beats opening that kitchen door to a dog who’s excited to see me! They act like I’ve been gone for years, and the joy they express can truly change the outcome of my day.

I often find myself having conversations with my dog. He just sits there and listens. If I happen to be crying, he licks the tears off my face. It seems he’s always there for me no matter what. Truly my best friend. Even if I don’t speak the words, he seems to know when I need him the most.

Things can get quite depressing when you have chronic pain, particularly if you can’t work anymore. You can become a hermit when you feel like you’ve lost your purpose.

I really lost my identity when I stopped doing hair and sold my salon. But since I got my dogs, I go out more. Now I find myself investigating parks with my best friend. We often go to this dog park in the suburbs that’s all fenced in. We meet new people and have made some new friends, even a few who also have RA.

I know I have a tendency to crawl into my little shell, but going to dog parks and even dog socialization classes can be a wonderful way to meet new people and socialize my pet, keeping us both a part of the world out there.

Dog personalities can be so goofy. I just can’t help but laugh at some of the things they do on a daily basis. One of my dogs growls at the TV when there’s an animal on it. The other one likes to throw her rubber balls up in the air, over and over again.

A dog can make you happy in so many different ways. Who can pay attention to pain when you’re so busy laughing?

When you have RA, you can’t live without… »

A dog can keep a person busy mentally. When you have a companion, you aren’t so focused on your illness or the pain.

I know my mind has stayed quite busy since I’ve gotten both my dogs. Bathing them, feeding them, playing with them, watching TV with them, and even going places with them keeps my other, less pleasant thoughts at bay. It’s nice not to get stuck in my own head.

I really felt lost when I was first diagnosed with RA. But when these two fur babies came in to my life, things got so much better for me, mentally and physically. I look forward to our weekends at the dog park socializing with other dog owners and getting outside. Though I hardly ever expected to have one dog in my life, let alone two, I can’t imagine a day without them.

Gina Mara was diagnosed with RA in 2010. She enjoys hockey and is a contributor to CreakyJoints. Connect with her on Twitter @ginasabres.