Alex O’Connor sometimes can’t sleep from the pain caused by her multiple sclerosis. O’Connor hates to wake her husband, but she knows she’s not alone if pain disturbs her slumber.
“When I’m in pain in the middle of the night, and my spouse is asleep, my dogs are up with me,” says O’Connor, 50, of Durham, N.C. “They’re a great comfort to me.”
Pets can be very helpful for someone with a multiple sclerosis diagnosis, says Rosalind Kalb, PhD, vice president of clinical care for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. “Pets provide an incredible amount of companionship and emotional support. They give people a reason to get up every morning and be active,” Dr. Kalb says.
Benefits Beyond Companionship
O’Connor’s two dogs are Polly, an 11-year-old Dalmatian, and Grady, a two-and-a-half-year-old foxhound, and she also owns a couple of cats — all critters that serve a variety of roles in her life.
“Polly lives in the moment, so she teaches me it’s important to live in the moment and be happy in the moment,” O’Connor says. “My pets also give me something to look forward to. I get up in the morning, and I look forward to seeing them.”
O’Connor has trained Polly and Grady to work as service animals for her. “Polly is my eyesight,” she says. “I have double vision, and she helps keep me from running into things. Grady is trained to pull me out of chairs and get my cell phone and do things like that.”
She finds that having a dog with her also helps her interactions with humans, too. “I take her to the hospital with me all the time,” says O’Connor, who’s also battling stage 4 ovarian cancer and is on chemo. “It’s interesting because the doctors are much more compassionate to me when I have the dog, and other patients enjoy seeing the dog.”
Her dogs also are great motivators for her to get up and move. “It’s also good for me because they need exercise, and so they get me up and out even when I might not want to go,” O’Connor says. “I drag my foot, and I have a little bit of trouble walking, so both of them help me with that.
Pets Help Boost Mental Health
O’Connor’s experiences with her pets are common among patients with a multiple sclerosis diagnosis, especially those struggling with feelings of sadness, loneliness, loss, or depression, Kalb says.
“MS is tied to loss — loss of function, loss of self-esteem,” Kalb says. “There’s a grieving process that accompanies those changes, and when we are undergoing grieving of loss, having the companionship of a pet that gives unconditional love can be invaluable. It’s a consistent presence in the face of a disease that is pretty unpredictable.”
Interactions with pets are known to reduce loneliness, anxiety, and depression in all people, not just those with MS. Pets can also boost your morale and spark a renewed interest in having social interactions with others.
“I think pets are great for people with MS,” O’Connor says. “I know people who are homebound or in wheelchairs — the dogs and cats mean so much to them, too. The quality of life is so much better for them. I’ve known patients who were despondent until they got a pet, and it helped with their depression.”