Animal-Assisted Therapy for Fibromyalgia

February 25, 2015

The Belly of HappinessAs a mom to three cats, I completely believe that furry bodies have the power to heal us — both emotionally and physically. It doesn’t matter what kind of a day I’m having. If I rub SamSam’s belly, I receive an infusion of joy. (It’s sort of like the folklore of rubbing a happy buddha belly.) In fact, I call this The Belly of Happiness & Joy.

I know you’re smiling just looking at that enormous fuzzy belly! ♥

I’m very excited to share this article with you. It’s written by Nancy Laracy, one of my friends in the NFMCPA Leaders Against Pain Action Network. Due to her own experience with “bunny therapy”, Nancy has become an advocate for Animal-Assisted Therapy for fibromyalgia and chronic pain patients. She’s worked with all ages, including the children of Sandy Hook and elder care facilities. You can read more about Nancy below.

 

Animal-Assisted Therapy for Fibromyalgia

Nancy Laracy & BunnyboyGuest post by: Nancy Laracy

I am so exhausted and in too much pain to take care of a pet!

Sound familiar?

Often times, chronic pain patients would love to have a furry pet to snuggle or play with, and for companionship, but they are fearful that their pain and fatigue will make it impossible to properly care for that pet. Some patients see pets as a burden.

My experience, however, has been that we are actually on the receiving end of pet therapy when we own a dog or cat or another furry creature, such as an adorable bunny.

What Better Therapy for Fibromyalgia?

Pets make us get up to let them out or take them for a walk, or in my case, chase them around the house like a Nascar driver.  They make us stretch to clean their litter pan, brush their silky fur, or snuggle.  They stand at our feet and wiggle their little noses or binky across the carpet looking to play, which requires exercise on our part. (Binkying is a rabbit’s unique, adorable way of frolicking to say “I’m so happy!”)

Pets also teach us about the importance of love and affection. As I chase Muffin (my adorable Jersey Woolie bunny) around, I feel a lightness and happiness that I cannot describe.  It takes me away from my pain, if only for a short time.

Bunnyboy & Me

Nancy Laracy & BunnyboyMy first rabbit, Bunnyboy (right), also taught me that unconditional love really does heal, where medical science fails, and prolongs and improves the quality of our lives. He taught me how to fight and never give up no matter what curveball life sends your way.

The Most Effective Treatment for My Pain

In the middle of a magical snowstorm in 2001, cabin fever sent my children and me up to the local pet store for crickets for our Australian Bearded Dragon — a very fancy name for a lizard.

There was a new litter of bunnies in the window that I zoomed in on; to this day, I have no idea why.  My husband was allergic to dogs and cats and somehow, up until that night, our lizard had fit the bill as the family pet.  Despite the frigid weather, as I held one of the baby bunnies, something in me began to melt. Before I knew it, I found myself braving the snowy ride home with a new Red Satin Rabbit and enough bunny supplies for a herd of bunnies — not one.

When I walked into the house carrying our new family member, my husband looked at me dumbfounded.  “You didn’t even call me to ask or give me the heads up? What if I am allergic to the bunny?” he asked.  The kids and I just looked at each other.  Ward quickly pulled out the Benadryl and gave up the fight.

Thus, by a stroke of fate or perhaps luck, after trying just about every mainstream and holistic treatment available — refusing to give up my search for pain relief — I stumbled accidentally on the most effective treatment for my pain: a soft, cuddly Red Satin Rabbit named Bunnyboy!

Fierce Determination

At only nine months old, Bunnyboy developed a severe jaw abscess.  We were told that he wouldn’t survive more than a few months.  Well, that wasn’t good enough for me.  I went into the same fighter mode for Bunnyboy that I had used for my own illnesses.

Bunnyboy underwent surgery, despite the fact that rabbits are prey animals designed by nature to be frail and can succumb quickly to anesthesia and pain.  Bunnyboy thrived after the surgery and continued to become a cherished member of our family, binkying around the house with a zest for life that I both admired and fed off of. Bunnyboy became the mascot for my children’s sports teams and the live exhibit for more than one science fair.  He traveled in the car everywhere with me and filled the void that I felt over not being able to have more children.  He became my third child.

When Bunnyboy’s abscess returned a few years later, Dr. Cheryl Welch, his veterinarian, told us about a new, seemingly more effective treatment for these highly resistant abscesses that was being used experimentally at the world famous Animal Medical Center in New York.  So, of course, I rushed Bunnyboy right into New York and he underwent surgery where the physician implanted absorbable antibiotic beads into the site of the infection after removing the abscess.  The beads would release slowly over three months to combat the infection long term. Sadly, the infection had already settled into Bunnyboy’s hocks. With proper cleaning and bandage changes, as well as daily penicillin injections that became a family act of love, our resilient bunny recovered from those infections as well.

While Bunnyboy struggled to hop around the house — bandages and all — something wonderful happened.  His fierce determination helped me not to feel so broken and taught me that it was ok not to be able to do everything I used to.

My Avenue to Overcome Pain

Several years after Bunnyboy’s miraculous surgery and recovery, I developed a bone infection in my jaw.  I was on Enbrel, an immunosuppressant that posed a great risk for me with regards to even the smallest infection, let alone a serious bone infection.  Amazingly, the surgery to clean out the infection also involved the use of similar antibiotic beads that had been used on Bunnyboy.  The beads had just recently been approved for the use in oral surgery for humans. Without the absorbable antibiotic beads, my outcome could have been very different.  So you see, Bunnyboy helped save my life literally and figuratively.  He became MY AVENUE to overcome pain.  I was so busy caring for his many ails that I had little time to focus on my own.

When I realized how happy Bunnyboy made my family and me, I knew he could have the same effect on others. Bunnyboy became a formal therapy animal for a short time before he died at nine years old peacefully in my arms, of nothing more than old age.

Muffin, the Therapy Bunny

After I had sufficient time to mourn the loss of Bunnyboy, I bought a new bunny with the intention of having her become a formal therapy bunny. Muffin and I are the only certified bunny therapy team in New Jersey. We were the first New Jersey branch of Bunnies in Baskets, and we have a very full schedule.

Nancy Laracy & MuffinMuffin and I make monthly visits to various rehabilitation and long-term facilities to work with the elderly while also planning and implementing large and small organized events during the year for sick or disabled children. We work with organizations such as Cancer Care, Camp Dream Street, and Valley Regional Hospital Butterflies Hospice program. We signed books at the Disney-themed Teddy Bear Festival last year (left), and are currently planning our costumes for this year’s Superheros theme.

We have also worked with the children of Sandy Hook, in Newtown, Connecticut, quite regularly since the horrible events of December 14, 2012. Our unique programs are designed to incorporate a bunny theme via books, crafts and edible treats; Muffin and I bring love and happiness to many.

Planning and implementing the bunny therapy programs keeps my mind and body busy.  When I am out working with the children or senior citizens, I barely feel my pain as I see their emotional or physical pain melt away when they hold or stroke Muffin.

Animal-Assisted Therapy is such an important part of any program designed to ease suffering and pain.  Studies have shown that having a pet or being around a pet can help dramatically with a patient’s pain level and emotional well being.

Never underestimate the therapeutic benefits of interacting with animals. If you want a soft, furry creature to cuddle up with, go and get yourself one!

Research on Animal-Assisted Therapy

Animal-Assisted Therapy has made great strides with regard to chronic pain.  Here are some studies illustrating the therapeutic benefits for chronic pain or illness:

Impact of Animal-Assisted Therapy for Outpatients with Fibromyalgia

A remarkable study in the January 2013 issue of Pain Medicine entitled “Impact of Animal-Assisted Therapy for Outpatients with Fibromyalgia,” shows the positive impact therapy dogs had on fibromyalgia with regard to their pain and mood. 34% of the patients who spent 10-15 minutes before their doctor appointment in pet therapy had “clinically meaningful pain relief” (greater than or equal to 2 points of pain severity reduction). [1]

Pet Therapy: Recovering with Four-Legged Friends Requires Less Pain Medication

Science Daily reported the results of this study in November 2009.  Patients recovering from total hip replacements or other major orthopedic surgeries needed 50 percent less pain medication when they were visited by therapy dogs post surgery.  These results were presented at the 18th Annual Conference of the International Society of Anthrozoology and the first Human Animal Interaction Conference in Kansas City, Missouri. [2]

Animal-Assisted Therapy at an Outpatient Pain Management Clinic

In January 2012, Pain Medicine published a study conducted at the University of Pittsburgh. “Animal-Assisted Therapy at an Outpatient Pain Management Clinic” resulted in a dramatic reduction in pain and stress level of the patients and an overwhelming positive sense of well being for their caretakers and providers as well. [3]

Additional note from Tami…

In 2013, I was part of a study done by a student at LaTrobe University in Australia. Lahna Bradley surveyed chronic pain patients to see how effective pets were for helping to manage pain. One thing she discovered was that patients need to choose their pets carefully. A very energetic, large dog, for instance, may be less helpful for reducing pain due to the added work and stress. This makes me think that Nancy’s bunnies would be an excellent choice for a fibromyalgia patient! [4]

About Nancy

Nancy Laracy & BunnyboyNancy is currently a writer and national advocate for the chronic pain and pet therapy community.  She was a human resources executive before she became ill in 1996.  Nancy lives in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, with her husband and has two grown children.  She has written articles for, or been the subject of interest, in many magazine publications such as Arthritis Today, Pain Pathways, and Rabbits USA, with regard to living and surviving with chronic pain.

Nancy is a member of Leaders Against Pain Action Network, a branch of the National Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain Association.  She stays in touch with hundreds of individuals worldwide who suffer in chronic pain. She has a blog and also a Facebook page which keeps current her endeavors related to chronic pain and bunny therapy.

Nancy pioneered the first New Jersey branch of Bunnies in Baskets, a national 501(c)3 charity, and sits on their board of directors.  Nancy and her rabbit Muffin are a very active therapy team, visiting the elderly and working with children who have cancer and other disabilities.

Nancy has written a memoir about her amazing story as to how she triumphed over chronic pain with the help of her first rabbit, Bunnyboy, her miracle bunny!


1. Marcus, Dawn A. et al. “Impact of Animal-Assisted Therapy for Outpatients with Fibromyalgia.” Pain medicine (Malden, Mass.) 14.1 (2013): 43–51. PMC. Web. 26 February 2015. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3666031/
 
2. Loyola University Health System. “Pet therapy: Recovering with four-legged friends requires less pain medication.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 17 November 2009. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/11/091116131824.htm
 
 3. Marcus, D. A., Bernstein, C. D., Constantin, J. M., Kunkel, F. A., Breuer, P. and Hanlon, R. B. (2012), Animal-Assisted Therapy at an Outpatient Pain Management Clinic. Pain Medicine, 13: 45–57. doi: 10.1111/j.1526-4637.2011.01294.x http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22233395
 
4. Bradley, Lahna et al. “Summary of Results: Pets’ Effectiveness in Managing Pain and Improving Wellbeing in Adult Community Members”. November 2013. https://www.apsoc.org.au/PDF/Surveys/LaTrobe_Uni_Pets_effectiveness_in_managing_pain_in_adults_NOV13.pdf
Amber May 3, 2015 at 10:38 am

Dogs are pretty common but this is my first time to read about rabbits being used for therapy. Who would’ve thought that those cute lovable balls of fur provide medical relief too! My bunny Yin died at 5 years old but he was my lucky charm and source of stress relief when he was still alive :)
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Susan Mary Malone September 22, 2015 at 8:45 am

Nancy, I absolutely love this! And you’ve just captured the animal-therapy benefit. I, too, have struggled with a chronic illness, and my fur kids just save me.
I also have therapy dogs, and can vouch for what an amazing experience it is. How people’s eyes light up! I do nursing home visits (because no one else wants to do those. I just love the folks there!), and I always laugh–they don’t remember my name but they always remember the dog’s! It’s just so rewarding.
Good for you and the bunny brigade!

Mary York December 15, 2015 at 6:59 pm

How wonderful that a bunny can provide such comfort and joy to those with challenging and diminishing health issues. Pet therapy is a beautiful way to make connections with those in need of some bright moments in their days. So nice to know that you participate in hospice pet therapy work–which is an area of hospice volunteer work that many may not be aware exists. As a hospice volunteer and founder of a national hospice volunteer project, thank you for writing this article.
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mishalkhan February 22, 2016 at 3:00 am

waw its soo cute cats. i love cats. i have my own beautiful cat. its really cute and owesome. thanks for great post.
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