June 20, 2018

UCalgary researchers show living with a dog helps patients with chronic pain

Interdisciplinary Alberta study finds dogs help with depression, social well-being and giving purpose
Jack, who is Eloise Carr’s rescue dog, joined her family six years ago from the Cochrane Human Society. Carr is a professor in the Faculty of Nursing and the Human-Animal Pain Interaction (HAPI) research team lead with the University of Calgary.

Jack, who is Eloise Carr’s rescue dog, joined her family six years ago.

Eloise Carr

Man’s best friend is more than just a companion. In fact, researchers at the University of Calgary have found dogs are improving pain, mental health, physical and social well-being in people living with chronic pain.

“Chronic pain is a massive burden on society,” says Dr. Eloise Carr, PhD, professor in the Faculty of Nursing and the Human-Animal Pain Interaction (HAPI) research team lead with UCalgary. “It costs billions of dollars a year in Canada and across the world in terms of health care and lost productivity, and it’s going to get worse as the population ages.”

Researchers in HAPI are part of an interdisciplinary team made up of experts in nursing, social work, veterinary medicine, sociology and community health sciences. The group studies the experience of dog owners who live with chronic pain. The core team of 15 researchers is comprised of five patient members, two with service dogs, and researchers from UCalgary, University of Alberta and University of Lethbridge. There is also a collaboration with veterinary medicine colleagues at Colorado State University.

“There’s a lot of good science that’s published out there about the benefits of dog therapy or service dogs or about living with a dog, but not in the chronic pain population,” says Carr, who adds that 32 per cent of households in Calgary have a dog. Carr is a member of the McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health, the O’Brien Institute for Public Health and an associate member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute (at the Cumming School of Medicine). She also has an adjunct position with the Department of Community Health Sciences.

Jean E. Wallace, left, and Eloise Carr.

Jean E. Wallace, left, and Eloise Carr.

Lynda Sea, Faculty of Nursing

A year and a half ago, the HAPI research team started with a small qualitative study interviewing dog owners who live with chronic pain. Carr says the human-animal pain connection they discovered showed that living with a dog helps individuals coping with chronic pain related to their mental, physical and social well-being. The team then did a feasibility study called "Evaluating the Benefits of Dog Ownership for People with Chronic Low Back Pain,” which involved interviewing dog owners with chronic pain to measure different aspects of their health and wellness.

The study revealed that the dog owners reported significantly less severe pain, but perhaps more important, it showed that dogs give people a reason to get out of the house and socialize.

Dr. Jean E. Wallace, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Sociology, Faculty of Arts and a co-principal investigator with Carr on this study. Carr and Wallace met more than two years ago when they collaborated to create a graduate level course in mixed methods research at UCalgary. Wallace was studying job stress, coping and mental health of veterinarians at the time, and the two immediately found parallels in their shared interest of human-animal bonds and coping with chronic pain.

“We know that living with chronic pain can lead to depression but also if you’re depressed, you’re going to view the experience of living with chronic pain with a more negative light as well,” says Wallace. “Even if we can’t reduce the pain, if we can reduce depression and improve mental health, there are benefits in terms of looking at how you get up in morning and want to do things. Some people we interviewed were suicidal; they were thinking about taking their own lives but what stopped them was having a dog and having to care for that creature. Having a dog is so central to giving them a meaning and purpose.”

In addition to giving chronic pain patients meaning and purpose, dogs also provide distraction, along with listening and emotional support. Respondents in the study mentioned they experience benefits from talking to their dog and offloading their concerns to a non-judgmental figure.

Some of the members of the Human-Animal Pain Interaction research team

Some of the members of the Human-Animal Pain Interaction research team.

Lynda Sea, Faculty of Nursing

“What I find interesting is that people with chronic pain become very isolated; their relationships with other human beings disappear because people get tired of talking about pain with other human beings, or listening to people talking about pain,” says Carr. “That doesn’t happen with dogs.”

There are plans to expand the study outside the province later this year. The HAPI team also has a mirrored study with colleagues Dr. Peter Hellyer and Dr. Lori Kogan at Colorado State University who interviewed dog owners who live with chronic pain. Carr says the same questions about pain management often come up in the human and animal world.

“A lot of research in my field is always about chasing the Holy Grail, ‘let’s get a reduction in the pain.’ But there is no silver bullet for chronic pain management. We just need to improve the quality of life for sufferers and there is much to learn from the animal world.”

Carr says the next step is developing interventions that are relevant and meaningful to patients. “If you ask patients, they say that they don’t mind if it doesn’t reduce but if they could actually lift their grandchild or take their dog for a walk for 10 minutes, that would be fantastic.

"The reality is that people with chronic, persistent pain often have to live with that. What we’re interested in is enhancing their quality of life and physical, psychological and social well-being. It’s that whole picture.”

Check out the Global News video featuring HAPI which aired April 2, 2018.