Multiple sclerosis can suck some of the fun out of life, but dogs are pure joy.
Living well with multiple sclerosis (MS) means managing your physical, psychological, social, and emotional well-being. I can’t think of any single intervention that addresses all of these needs better than having a dog in your life.
Unlike my contention that retail therapy, a regular glass of wine, or a day at the spa are all valid ways to help manage MS, there’s actual science to back up my claim that life with MS is better with man’s best friend.
Earlier this year my new neurologist asked whether I had any pets. This was just a couple months after we had said a sad goodbye to our old doodle, Rihga, who was 14 1/2 years old.
It was heartbreaking to lose her, of course, but in addition to the emotional loss, I had also noticed the negative effect her absence was having on my physical health.
Even before I started to explain this, my doctor knew the deal.
“Get a dog,” she said, in a dead-serious tone that confirmed what I already knew. If pharma could bottle the health benefits of dogs, we’d all be getting a prescription for Caninumab™ the moment we’re diagnosed.
Here’s a look at how puppy love can enhance your well-being.
One of the first things we learn about MS is how much stress can lead to worsening symptoms and potential relapses. I don’t know about you, but there’s something really stressful about being told to avoid stress, as if stress isn’t inevitable.
Thankfully, research shows that having a dog can reduce stress and even help us live longer.
Even after a full night’s sleep, I almost never feel rested. Most mornings I wake up stiff, a little cranky, and reluctant to start the day.
But it’s impossible not to respond with a loving tone when you’re greeted by a wagging tail and a creature who’s thrilled to see you, happy to be alive, and convinced that every day is about to be the best day of their life.
Even if I’m feeling lousy, my mood immediately changes when the first words out of my mouth are, “Who’s a good girl?”
Knowing that every step counts isn’t always enough for me to make it happen. But my fitness tracker confirms that without even realizing it, I move more when I’m responsible for a dog.
The health benefits of exercise don’t feel like they need any explanation, but there’s impressive research that shows real, tangible benefits of exercise on MS disease course.
There are a couple reasons getting outside is important for folks with MS. Time outside getting natural light may help regulate your sleep, which is really important for symptom management. And the benefits of vitamin D for folks with MS have been well documented.
But between MS fatigue and sensitivity to heat and cold, there are days when it’s hard to believe there’s anything great about the great outdoors until I’m obliged to get out for the sake of the pooch. And I’m always grateful I did.
(Remember, everyone’s response to heat and cold is different, and spending a lot of time outside may not be the right choice on certain days.)
I spend so much time thinking about and responding to my MS. Having something outside of myself to care for gives me a sense of purpose on days when I might otherwise feel ineffective.
Loneliness can lead to serious health problems, which can literally shorten lives. Loneliness is more likely to occur in the MS population where things like loss of employment, stigma, lack of understanding, and an absence of accessibility can lead to social isolation.
It’s no coincidence that the COVID-19 crisis that’s forced all of us into some degree of isolation has caused a spike in pet adoptions as people seek to fill this void.
For many years I spent the majority of my day without the company of anyone other than Rihga. For almost 15 years I spent more time with my dog than with anyone. I can’t overstate how much comfort she gave me.
A very wise 6-year-old recently told a good friend of mine that “animals don’t talk — they communicate.”
It’s common for people with chronic illnesses like MS to have our worries and stresses be met with well-meaning attempts to offer solutions, when all we need is a little compassion.
Telling your problems to a dog whose only response is to put their head in your lap can be downright healing.
Take a puppy to a park and you’ll meet people. A friendly dog is the ultimate ice breaker. Research shows that even casual interactions have protective benefits on our physical and emotional well-being.
The benefits of having a dog in your life are well documented, but having a pet is a massive responsibility and isn’t practical for everyone.
The good news is there are many ways to spend time with animals without taking on full-time responsibility. You can pet-sit for a friend, get a dog-walking job, or volunteer at a shelter.
There are some shelters that let you “rent” dogs for walks or play dates, and there are even opportunities to foster rescue dogs. When friends and family visit, consider inviting them to bring their dog.
If spending time with a dog in person isn’t an option, remember that the internet is full of hilarious dog videos. When laughter really is the best medicine, I turn to social media for a prescription-level dose of dogs doing ridiculous things until I forget whatever it was I was so worked up about.
Of course, if you’re not an animal person, a dog can be a smelly, hairy, expensive nuisance. But if you’re still reading, I realize I’m probably preaching to the choir.
MS can suck some of the joy out of life, but dogs are pure joy.
After almost 7 dogless months, we brought Tilly home at the end of June. Already life, and life with MS, is so much better.
Article originally appeared on August 10, 2020 on Bezzy’s sister site, Healthline. Last medically reviewed on August 10, 2020.
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