Pet Therapy for Type 2 Diabetes
Last updated: March 2022
Have you heard of ‘animal-assisted therapy’? It is a therapy that saves lives, every day. “Animal-assisted therapy is a growing field that uses dogs or other animals to help people recover from or better cope with health problems, such as heart disease, cancer, and mental health disorders."1 Another more common term you may have heard is pet therapy.
What is pet therapy?
Pet therapy is commonly used not only for the things I’ve already mentioned but for children or adults who have seizures, who are blind, who have hearing disabilities, who are autistic, who have Alzheimer’s, who have physical or medical disabilities, or folks who deal with anxiety.
And yes, diabetes.
The comfort of pets
Some of these pets are truly just that, pets. They bring happiness and joy to people in situations that are difficult to cope with. They have no special training. They are there to provide love or comfort or whatever else was needed. I’ll share a couple of personal examples. My dad had Alzheimer’s. When my brother brought his dog to the memory care home where dad lived, we watched dad respond. He did not remember any of us, but he knew the dog. We saw a piece of dad still there when we thought he was not. When my dad passed away, my daughter came with her kitten for a visit. That kitten curled up on my chest while I was crying and stayed there for the longest time sensing I needed comfort.
Then there are the trained animals. Dogs usually. They can be our eyes and ears when we cannot see or hear. They can make a connection to someone when the world cannot, as is the case with autism. They can be the legs and arms for those who cannot use theirs.
Pet therapy for diabetes
For people with diabetes, these pets can be trained to detect low blood sugars for those who use insulin and are hypoglycemic unaware. They alert their person to eat something with sugar to avoid the crisis or they can get help if hypoglycemia comes on without warning. That is truly amazing. And life-saving. However, not all of us with type 2 diabetes fit that description. Many people with type 2 diabetes never need insulin. Those who do are often aware when their blood sugars are going low and can treat without crisis. So a trained pet may never be required. And that’s good. Because of the cost and time needed to train, we want those pets available for those who require them.
Coping with anxiety and stress
But for those of us who don’t require a trained pet, a pet of any kind can assist with coping with diabetes. Look, we all know diabetes sucks. We all know how difficult it is to live with type 2 diabetes. It creates a hyper-vigilance because we strive for perfection. That vigilance then creates anxiety as we wait for that next number to be perfect and find out it was not. Many, many of us deal with diabetes-related anxiety but never recognize it as such because we have found a way to cope with it. We don’t often talk about the anxiety we experience if it’s not an official diagnosis. But here’s the thing. Anxiety releases stress hormones. Stress increases blood pressure. Stress increases blood sugars. Increased blood sugars eventually affect the heart. Lowering the anxiety lowers stress hormones.
Anxiety that goes on for long periods even at low levels can affect our health in a negative way. Yes, there are medications to deal with both but let’s face it. Most of us rail against having to take drugs. We do take them, but we don’t like it. Would, could a pet help us to decrease diabetes-related anxiety? I think so. Walking your dog, or in some cases, your cat, also helps lower your blood sugars. The exercise is amazing for doing that and it’s enjoyable! When my grand kitty comes for a visit, it’s not a walk outside for us, it’s a run through the galley kitchen and the living room...around and around. This gives everybody a hard belly laugh too!
Is a pet just a pet?
So is a pet only a dog? No. Is it only a cat? No. It could be a gerbil. It could be a hamster. It could be fish. It could be a bird. It could be whatever animal gives you joy; any animal that meets your medical, physical, or emotional needs. It’s the unconditional love they give us. They help us. And they protect us from harm.
As long as we have the ability to commit long term to the pet that came to us the way they will commit to us, then it’s all good. And anything that supports our diabetes is okay with me.
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