Finding Comfort and IBD Support From a Pet

Last updated: November 2022

"Petting, scratching, and cuddling a dog could be as soothing to the mind and heart as deep meditation and almost as good for the soul as prayer." –Dean Koontz

I'm an empty-nester. When I turned 47, my son ventured off to college and began forging his own path. I felt a hole in my heart that needed to be filled. With ulcerative colitis as my lifelong partner, I struggled at first with both the loss of no longer feeling like a "mom" and with the pains and rages of UC. It was then that my Border Collie nudged me gently into really seeing her.

Over the years, I was never much of a dog person. Dogs have often scared me. When I met my husband, he owned a dog. They adopted me.

But when our senior Border Collie experienced a mild stroke right after my son left for college, I discovered she needed me to "mother" her through the experience. During the time I nursed and cared for her, I noticed that the warfare within my gut settled down and seemed to withdraw its fight. Days spent petting and cuddling my her revived not only her physically, but me, too. In addition, this time of bonding with this 4-legged fur child alerted me to the soothing of my maternal heart and emotional status. We girls — my dog and I — recovered in ways that truly stand indescribable.

Pet therapy + IBD

This experience introduced me to the real benefits of "pet therapy." I learned that interacting with a friendly pet can be positive and helpful therapy. In short, it can provide a healing balm for many physical and mental issues. The releasing of endorphins when petting, scratching, and cuddling a pet produces a calming effect that can do the following: reduce blood pressure, ease pain, lower stress, and improve a person's overall emotional state. I can feel the effects each time I pet on my dog.

But I experienced a setback with my colitis when my Border Collie passed away this past spring. Where would my therapy come from? I had maintained remission for a few years, and I didn't want to return to the land of medication. I needed the maternal outlet of my dog.

In a weird, woo-hoo kind of way (too fantastical to believe for the non-pet-lovers), it led me to a new "therapy dog" – a puppy. Molly, a Red Merle Border Collie, now lives with me and my husband. She slipped right into acting like a "support dog" but without the formal training.

Trained service animals

For those who don't know, there are service animals and there are therapy/emotional support animals. Service animals are specially trained dogs. They perform tasks and assist anyone living with a disability or with a chronic condition. These particular animals possess access to public spaces like restaurants, stores, airplanes, and public transportation. They can legally go anywhere people go. Whereas, therapy/emotional support animals do not receive the same privileges under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Plus, these animals don't perform tasks for owners.

What truly amazes me is that service dogs can sniff out IBD flares if trained for it. Research shows that certain chronic illnesses release scents that service dogs can detect from other smells. Considering the pandemic, I even read studies where dogs identified COVID-19 symptoms before humans.1

No formal training, but all of the cuddles

At age 6 months, my Molly isn't a formally trained service dog nor a trained service animal. But here's what I have witnessed over the past few months that she's been in my life. Whenever I experience bouts of sadness, physical pain, or fear, she immediately begins cuddling me.

Case in point: Last night, I was in the barn's upstairs, and a bird (or was it a bat? I don’t know because its sudden appearance scared me too much to notice) appeared flapping frantically to find a way out of its entrapment. It scared me so much that I screamed and cowardly hit the barn floor. My Molly girl, who was a few feet away from me, ran instantly to my side. She began licking me and pawing me in gentle motions until I wrapped my arms around her. Then she crawled into my lap and continued soothing me with her kisses.

Then I realized she had done the same a few days prior when I had not realized that I had a urinary tract infection. Literally, one day before I woke up with intense UTI pain, she had tried to "soothe" me the evening beforehand, and I didn't know why she was acting so protective. I've since pieced together that my fur child knows when I have a headache and gut pains. She's only been in my life a few months, but she is wiser than I realized.

Supporting me on my IBD journey like no one else can

Whether formally trained or not, animals can meet the physical and emotional needs of their humans. But are we paying attention? As woo-hoo as it might seem, I know that my former Border Collie saw the health and emotional need to guide my path to the right therapy dog. The calming nature of my new pup helps ease my anxious days. And petting her reduces my stress, which reduces my gut pain.

No better medicine exists to help me physically and emotionally. I will no longer ignore the gentle nudges from my dog. I trust her instincts better than my own. In the 30 years that I've lived with UC, I know that no better soul treatment exists than the soothing balm my dog offers.

Do you have a therapy animal that helps you navigate the IBD journey? How has your pet soothed your pains? Please share your animal stories with us.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The InflammatoryBowelDisease.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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