They say everything happens for a reason. So on that day, when I- an animal rescue advocate- threw my hands up in frustration and said, “Screw it, I’m buying a dog”, there was a reason. Of course, it would be 6 months to a year before that reason became clear. That happened in the veterinary specialists office, when the doctor delivered the news that my beautiful black lab suffered from an autoimmune disease. The irony of the fact that she delivered this news to an immunologist with an autoimmune syndrome was completely lost on her, but I knew why this particular dog came into my life.
Baxter the black lab has had a good life, but as he ages, his symptoms rear their ugly head more and more. While watching him the other day, I realized that the human chronic pain community could learn a lot from how Baxter handles his pain and illness. Here is just sampling of Baxter’s wisdom:
Lesson #1- Stretch
Every morning, or whenever he gets up, Baxter does a series of stretches. He does a good down dog, followed by a deep up dog (where do you think those moves got their names?) then shakes a bit to get the juices flowing. We can all benefit from stretching (apparently, this is also true in the case of a zombie apocalypse- see Zombieland Rule #18- Limber up!). The Arthritis Foundation recommends Tai Chi and light yoga for patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Patients with fibromyalgia also benefit from stretching. Yoga was the first thing I did after my diagnosis and it helped immensely with the chronic joint pain. So get your stretch on! Your body will thank you!
Lesson #2- Keep moving
It’s counterintuitive to most chronic pain sufferers that movement will improve their condition. They think, I’m in pain, the last thing I want to do is move; that will just make it worse. The opposite is true, of course, and Baxter seems to know that instinctively. Baxter loves to run and will do so even when in pain. He never gives up. Let’s say you just went for a long walk and you’re limping a little, you’re tired, but you head out to the backyard for a nap and there’s that pesky groundhog. What do you? Do you take relax in the sun like you were originally planning to do, or run after that guy like your life depends on it? Well, Baxter would run after that guy, because the sun will still be there when he gets back. Don’t let the pain stop you from being active and doing the things you love. That being said, you have to know your limits so you don’t get injured. Be aware of your limits, but keep moving- even if it’s just a walk around the block. (Incidentally, this is also a crucial zombie apocalypse skill- see Zombieland rule #1- Cardio!)
Lesson #3- Take naps
This may seem contradictory after I just said keep moving, but rest is important for your health. Baxter takes lots of naps- he naps on the couch, he naps on our bed, he naps on his bed, he naps with his friends- you get the picture. Again, he seems to know what he needs and when he needs it. It’s important to realize that many people suffering from autoimmune syndromes are also suffering from sleep deprivation. For example, fibromyalgia can effect sleep patterns and leave patients feeling exhausted. Sleep deprivation can have negative effects on your memory, your ability to handle stress, your mood, your appetite and your decision making ability. So you might want to make a conscious effort to include some naps and help your body and mind get the rest it needs.
Lesson #4- Spend time with your friends
Dogs are pack animals. This means they are social, just like humans. Baxter never misses an opportunity to hang out with his friends. Once a week he goes to doggy day care, where he has lots of friends, both human and canine, that he plays and bonds with. He also has a weekly walk with one of his girlfriends and gets together regularly with his cousin for play dates. If he misses any of these, it definitely affects his mood. Hmm, makes you wonder if lack of social interaction affects our moods too, doesn’t it? But humans tend to get caught up in the rat race and don’t necessarily take the time to just decompress with friends. When was the last time you had a girl’s night out or just got together with the guys? Make time for friends and family, just to relax and enjoy their company. Social interaction is good for the soul.
Lesson #5- Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need
Most people want to feel independent, so we rarely ask for help. It seems that people with chronic illness might especially have this need. Baxter, on the other hand, has no problem asking for exactly what he needs. That’s a pretty good trick for a dog who can’t talk! What do I mean, well, Baxter loves to get back rubs and full body massages, but he doesn’t just wait around for someone to come over and give him a body rub. He knows it feels good and helps his sore muscles, so he asks for it. He has devised a signal that clearly indicates to his pack that he needs a good massage. If you are sitting somewhere with your feet on the floor, and Baxter makes eye contact, then turns around and sits directly on your foot, he wants a massage. And he usually gets it too! So, while we humans don’t want to seem needy, sometimes you have to understand that it’s okay to ask for help, and when you ask, there’s a good chance you will get exactly what you need.
Lessons #6- Never underestimate the power of touch
As previously mentioned dogs are pack animals and are very social. They like physical contact, like all those photos you see with piles of puppies. Baxter is no different. If he is lying down, he would much prefer to by lying down next to another animal (human, canine…and yes, even feline). He likes to be in contact and often pushes into you (if you have ever slept with your dog, you know what I mean!!). But the power of touch goes beyond this desire for physical contact. There are studies showing the healing power of touch. Premature babies who were caressed and held by their parents were more likely to thrive than those that experienced less touch. A photo of premature twins, one with their arm around the other, went viral a while back. The story is that one twin was doing well but the other was not. The doctors had tried everything, so one nurse broke protocol and put them in the same incubator. The stronger twin wrapped an arm around the weaker twin and the weaker twin’s vitals stabilized. Touch is also being used for emotional healing and to relieve anxiety. Something powerful is going on here, so don’t underestimate it. This doesn’t mean you have to spend a lot of money for a professional massage- although I wouldn’t talk you out of that! Touch can come in many forms, a simple caress, a hug, a massage, or just a snuggle- whatever it takes to ignite the healing power of touch. We are social animals too and both our minds and bodies benefit from the power of touch.
These are just a few life lessons from a dog living with an autoimmune disease. I suppose if we take them all together, the main message would be to get out there and live life to the fullest, like Baxter does. Don’t let your illness dictate who you are. Maybe easier said than done, sometimes, but when you get the opportunity, chase that groundhog!!