6 Ways My Dog Helps Me Live Better With Chronic Illnessby Cathy Kramer Patient Advocate
For 10 years now I have shared my life with a border collie named Izzy. She was welcomed into our home at a time when my rheumatoid arthritis (RA) seemed under control. While Izzy is technically a family dog, she is really my dog. I am the one she follows around the house, or “talks” to at night when she wants out or is scared by a storm. It’s my side of the bed she sleeps on during the day. I believe Izzy came into our lives for many reasons, but most importantly, she came for me. She came to teach me how to live better with my chronic illness.
Soon after Izzy joined our family, my RA took a nosedive. For the next several years, I struggled in ways I never imagined possible. More than once I was asked, “Why in the world would you choose a border collie when you are also dealing with RA?” For starters, I believe we are drawn to that which we need, and I need the lessons Izzy teaches me.
1. Motivation. You’ve heard the saying “move it or lose it,” right? During a dark time in my RA history — when just getting out of bed was a struggle — I took this saying to heart. I knew that gentle movement would help, and walking provided that for me. Many days I couldn’t hold the leash (I secured it around my waist) or walk very fast, but I knew if Izzy didn’t follow her daily walk routine, I would pay for it later at night when my RA is at its worst and she would pace the floor from lack of exercise. Because of Izzy’s high energy needs, she has always been my best motivator to “move it.”
2. Rest without guilt. While it is good to move when we can, sometimes adopting the resting habits of dogs can be beneficial. Dogs have a special way of playing hard and then napping without guilt. Izzy reminds me that if I need to go to bed early, nap during the day, or be a couch potato for a bit, I should do just that.
3. Know your limits. Izzy knows her own body well and, more importantly, she listens to it. When she had a torn ligament, she rested for days before she told me she was ready to walk. Once out, she knew when she had gone far enough. She stopped, looked at me, and turned back toward home. How smart is that! Time after time, I go overboard physically after an RA flare rather than easing back into my routine like my dog.
4. Acceptance. As a high-energy dog, Izzy spent years barking and lunging at dogs, pedestrians, and bicyclists on our walks. Then one day, it seemed to hit her that she had been through this scenario a million times. As a small, unleashed dog chased her down the street, I saw a different Izzy. She kept her eyes straight and walked as if she had things under control. If that dog needed to bark, then let it. It wouldn’t disrupt her walk. This moment was magical for me. After dealing with RA for years, I knew it was time to accept where my health stood with RA and start focusing on living. My life is more than RA. I needed to stop letting it interfere with all the other great things happening in my life.
5. Sense of community. Dogs have a special way of bringing people together. While many people in our neighborhood still don’t know my name, I have developed friendships with them. In the last 10 years, I have shared the heartache of losing a pet, learned about my neighbors’ families, discussed lawns and plants, laughed over silly dog stories, and even shared my story of RA with a few people as I limped along our path — all because of my dog.
6. Laughter really is the best medicine. There isn’t a day that goes by that Izzy doesn’t make me laugh out loud. I think it is because she doesn’t expect anything from me that I can let my guard down and let out a loud chuckle. With RA as part of my daily life, a good laugh can take my mind away from the pain, even if for a short time.
Dogs definitely require work. Serious consideration should always be given before purchasing or adopting a dog, but once you have added one to your family, watch your dog. They have a lot of lessons to share.