Can Pets Support Autoimmune Health?

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Sand with a woman's footprints and a dog's paw prints

“Over the years I’ve come to appreciate how animals enter our lives prepared to teach, and far from being burdened by an inability to speak they have many different ways to communicate. It is up to us to listen.”
~ Nick Trout

What Does the Science Say?

When you look at the personal experiences people have shared below, it won’t surprise you to know that pets often bring health benefits along with their love. Research shows that animal companions reduce feelings of loneliness, depression, worry, and irritability, and they increase feelings of calmness. This is important because stress is linked to the onset of autoimmune disease and also increases autoimmune flares. Pets are natural stress relievers. They encourage people to stay in the present moment. They make people laugh. They comfort during difficult times. They also provide unique emotional support by responding to their owners in an intuitive way, especially in times of crisis and periods of active symptoms. The unconditional love pets offer can increase self-acceptance. And their ability to listen without judgement allow people to express feelings they may otherwise keep inside.

Loneliness has become an epidemic in the modern world, and it carries serious health risks. Pets help alleviate that in two ways: one is through the deep relationship that people can have with animals. Another is that pets help bridge connections with other people. For example, dog owners often talk to each other when they meet while walking their dogs, when they wouldn’t talk to each other without the dogs present. Pets can also soothe social anxiety at more intimate gatherings at home.

And there’s more! Pets increase exercise and time in nature, both of which offer their own benefits. They give people a sense of purpose and positive self-esteem. They also offer physiological benefits: lowering blood pressure and releasing oxytocin. Known as a “feel good” hormone, oxytocin decreases pain and also stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system which supports healthy digestion. That’s a big list of benefits!

This doesn’t mean there are no downsides to pet ownership. Pets aren’t for everyone, but let’s focus on the positives first, and at the end of the article I’ll share some cautions.

What Do Autoimmune Warriors Say?

Lora Marie and her dog lying on the beach as her dog licks her face

Lora Marie and her dog, Dallas. Lora has Rheumatoid Arthritis, and is the woman behind the Instagram account @exploringautoimmune.

My dog Dallas has 100% supported/aided me in my autoimmune health journey. On days I feel like I can’t move, I get movement in because I know he needs and deserves it. Because I know it’s his favorite thing in the whole world (and mine too) I try to get out and hike/explore as much as possible. He’s physically there for me when others can’t be. His love and understanding is wholeheartedly, unconditional. His ability to raise serotonin levels for me is unlike any other. He makes me happy, he makes me laugh and he has gotten me through some of the toughest days I’ve ever experienced. 

Lauri and her horse, leaning on each other, forehead to forehead

Lori Pierce with her horse, Sequala. Lori has Scleroderma and is the woman behind the website, Scleroderma Scoop

Animals are a big part of my life. I have cats, dogs, chickens, and horses. Since I’m single and not a human mom, their care gives me purpose. It gives me a reason to get up and get moving and to stay as healthy as possible because I’m responsible for them. Additionally, they give so much love and they have an intuition to know when I need that. My heart horse has the most keen intuition and gentle spirit that feeds my soul and fills me up when I’m drained. Lastly, they’re entertaining. Just watching and observing their personalities and their quirks is added laughter. I mean, really, chickens running – ALWAYS funny.

Alissa smiling as she pets her cat

Alissa Frazier and her cat, Jim. Alissa has Multiple Sclerosis and is the woman behind the website LissMS.

I have three cats, and they help the most in the form of support and also serve as a nice distraction. When I find myself not feeling the best or feeling sad, they seem to always know and come around me to just cuddle. Their presence is so soothing! They always want to play as well, which can be a great distraction from what I’m trying to manage. They also bring me so much joy. When we live with an autoimmune disease, sometimes joy can be hard to come by but they create an endless supply.

Marie smiling and gazing down at her small dog in her arms

Marie and her dog, Sofia. Marie has Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.

I got Sofia three years ago and within the first year the pandemic hit. I do not know what I would have done during this time without her. She gets me up to walk every day. If I’m having a day where I just can’t manage she will stay in bed and cuddle for the day too. It’s amazing to have that support with absolutely no judgement. 

Kendra's gluten-detection dog sitting in her lap

Kendra Williams and her dog, Suki (aka @sukipwd on Instagram). Kendra has Celiac Disease.

After I was diagnosed with celiac disease in late 2017, I found that I still got very sick almost every time I ate outside of my home. This happened even though I tried to be careful. My extreme sensitivity led me to look into training a gluten detection service dog. I brought Suki home as an 8 week old puppy and trained her with Crescent Service Dogs. She is almost 2 years old and she has changed my life. She checks all my food, medicines, and personal care products for gluten. If she detects gluten, she raises a paw. She’s only been fully trained for 5 months, and she’s already saved me twice. She found gluten in one of my prescription medications and once in a meal at a restaurant. She also goes grocery shopping with me and checks the items before they go into my cart, keeping me from purchasing something that may have gluten in it. Once, she even found gluten in recycled paper plates! She provides the security I need to know I will not get sick from cross contact with gluten. She is a great companion and a huge blessing to me.

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Melissa laughing as she kneels on the floor, hugging her dogs as they try to lick her face

Melissa Jacobsen with her pups, Opal and Uma. Melissa (aka @bookworm520 on Facebook) has Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.

My dogs definitely support my health! They get me up and they get me out in the sun. They make me laugh and they offer unconditional love when I am being particularly hard on myself.

Jenny's cat snuggling next to her in bed

Jenny Le Zotte and her cat, Dashiell. Jenny (aka @jennylezotte on Instagram) has Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis and Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease. 

My cat is so sensitive, cuddling extra on days when I feel poorly. He’s always happy for extra snuggles. He also loves to be at my feet when I’m prepping food in the kitchen – Which is always!

Marc sitting outside with his chihuahua in his lap

Marc Roark and his dog, PeeWee. Marc (aka @indianamarc on Instagram) has Multiple Autoimmune Syndrome (lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, stills disease, ankylosing spondylitis, and fibromyalgia)

Having autoimmune disease is not easy but you find multiple ways to cope and heal. One of the ways that has helped me on my journey is having a puppy. PeeWee, my adopted chihuahua, rescues me on a daily basis with his love and snuggles. I also enjoy having a dog because on the days that I don’t feel like getting out and doing anything, I remember his need, grab the leash and take him for a walk. So not only does having him help with the emotional and mental parts of autoimmune disease but it helps the physical by keeping me moving and enjoying nature.

Anne-Laure and her dog looking at each other lovingly in a nature setting

Anne-Laure and her dog, Montana. Like many people in the autoimmune community, Anne-Laure has symptoms but no diagnosis.

My health has improved since I got my dog. I have to walk her everyday so I lost weight and gained more energy. I spend more time in nature which makes me calmer and happier. I also learned to let things go – a dog doesn’t always obey or act as you wish. It’s a lesson of humor, humility and patience, very helpful when you’re sick. I also meet a lot of people happy to see a dog while walking her, which cheers me up.

Isobeau smiling as she cuddles with her dog on the couch

Isobeau Trybula and her dog, Edith. Isobeau also has undiagnosed autoimmunity, and is an acupuncturist in Brooklyn, NY.

In addition to my dog, Edith, I also have a cat, Azhi. My beloved animals are my companions and the soul of my home. They help me relax, calm and reset. They show me how to just be. That is healing in itself. I’d also like to add that the animals we steward perform so much emotional labor. They give themselves entirely in service to us, and we absolutely owe them respect and care.

Jan relaxing outside with her donkeys as they graze in the sunshine

Jan Steele and her donkeys, Djembe and Cobane. Jan has Celiac disease, and she hosts an AIP-friendly B&B in France

I don’t consider them pets exactly, but our donkeys remind me how good I feel when I get regular movement AND exposure to nature. Walking with the donkeys offers me a regular opportunity to be outside, enjoy the forest, breathe fresh air, and truly SLOW DOWN. Even if just for an hour several times a week… this is the kind of rest that our genes evolved to be able to appreciate. Because watching TV is not, as it turns out, restful… but observing the birds in the forest, while lying in the sun and letting your donkey graze… THAT is restful!

Is There a Downside?

Pets can be wonderful companions, but they can also bring challenges. Some people have severe allergies, and the health harm might outweigh the health benefit. Pets are also very active, and they sometimes injure their owners unintentionally. While pets can be power sleepers who encourage us to take a break, they can also interrupt sleep by making noise in the middle of the night. Pets do give people purpose and become members of the family, but there can also be a feeling of burden, both financially and in terms of daily responsibility. If your health is poor, you may not want to take that on. Lastly, pets don’t live as long as we do, and the price of love is grief down the line when they pass away. The special love of an animal is often worth the grief, but it can be painful to navigate.

For many people, pets make life better, but if you have decided pets aren’t the right choice for you right now, you may be able to reap some mini benefits anyway. I’ve had pets in the past, but I don’t right now. My husband likes the freedom of a pet-free life, and for now, I’m choosing to respect that rather than try to override it. (That might change in the future!) In the meantime, I get an oxytocin boost just looking at the photos above. There’s a reason animal videos are so popular on YouTube. Another one of my favorite websites is Comedy Wildlife Photo. And if you would like animals to be a small part of your life with no ownership responsibility, there are pet therapy organizations who will bring animals to visit. One nationwide organization in the United States is called Pet Partners. See if there’s a volunteer near you!

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Credit: image at top of page purchased from iStock.

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