Presenting both pros and cons– neither choice is incorrect!
Research sings praises regarding interactions with pets including pet ownership among the chronically ill, such as persons with multiple sclerosis (PwMS). Across different health conditions, pet ownership is proposed to improve mental and physical health. Benefits mentioned include decreased loneliness and increased physical activity (1-6). At the same time, because I am a scientist, I must present recent work that raises questions regarding pet ownership and benefits on MS (7).
As an animal lover, I personally support pet ownership. However, as a PwMS who is also a veterinary professional and accredited pet training instructor, I have a deep understanding about the pros and cons regarding pet ownership for PwMS. In the following paragraphs, I would like to present both to existing pet owners and PwMS considering pet ownership.
Neither choice is incorrect–just what fits you and your life!
TraXel | MS & Pet Ownership
Advantages of pet ownership
Pets are non-human creatures that serve the purpose of providing companionship. Many domesticated animals are pets–dogs are the most popular, with cats being a close second. Other pet species providing companionship include pocket pets (rodents, rabbits), birds, fish, reptiles (1-7).
Besides simply being present, pets provide amusement, as demonstrated by the popularity of any species captured on camera and posted on the Internet. The amusement pets provide distracts their owners from worrying about their own lives. Moreover, focusing on pet care gives owners a sense of purpose because most pets need daily social interaction with their owners. To optimise pet care, owners grow their own knowledge, learning about nutrition and educating the animals for integration into human society. Growing pet care knowledge generally involves procedural learning, which enhances cognition among PwMS and prevents cognitive decline (8).
Disadvantages of pet ownership
1-Pet ownership introduces uncertainty
Pets are non-human animals that will act in their own interest. Sometimes, pet behaviour can be frustrating to owners. Animals can destroy property if not properly housed or educated. For example, cats have an innate need to scratch which may include furniture. Similarly, dogs need to chew and receive regular exercise. In later paragraphs, I present specific disadvantages of dog ownership because of any dog’s inherent need for regular exercise through routine walks.
This refers to the care of the animals. All animals need to be fed–that is a basic cost to consider. Some animals have or develop health conditions requiring specialized prescription diets only available through veterinarians. Veterinary services, from preventive care to treating illnesses, do cost money. Earlier, since I mentioned behaviour, sometimes owners may need to seek accredited behaviour professionals which includes veterinarians who specialize in behaviour medicine. Again, that is a financial burden.
3-Walking dogs and proposed strategy to offset potential problems for PwMS
Acquiring pet dogs may be a good idea for PwMS because of the increased likelihood of physical activity. Plus, anecdotal evidence advocates therapy and assistance dogs for PwMS to allow more autonomy.
That said, dogs can be difficult to care for, particularly if someone has MS.
For PwMS wishing to train their own existing pet dogs to potentially become their personal assistance/service animals, some of the prerequisite behaviours to service work include: walking on a loose lead without pulling forward or lagging behind
Teaching Your Pet Dog To Loose Leash Walk Is Crucial For Persons with Multiple Sclerosis - and absolutely possible without the need for corrections or punishment
Did you know? Between 2001 to 2020, analysis of data estimated 55% of adults (18 years and older) presented at emergency departments across the United States with injuries from falling after their dogs pulled on leash (13,14).
That alone suggests how frequently pet dogs across the United States must pull on their leashes. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, 48,255,413 households report owning pet dogs, or 38.4% of all American households.
Estimates between 30 to 60% of dog owners do not walk their dogs because the dogs pull on leash (15). Presumably, those pet owners may have tried to walk the dogs and gotten injured. The reported injuries included fractures and traumatic brain injury.
TraXel | MS & Pet Ownership
If you are a PwMS, you already have brain injury from your immune system attacking your brain. Did you really need a fall from walking your dog to help that along? From over 2 decades working in the veterinary profession, I understand a dog pulling on leash is more than just awkward to watch — I cringe because the dog’s welfare is compromised (10).
As a professional pet dog training instructor, I promote simple games involving reward-based methods to teach a dog of any size to loose leash walk (LLW). In this context, LLW is defined by a dog walking next to their handler, not pulling forward nor lagging behind (11).
A pilot study found that a service dog walking next to a PwMS resulted in the human’s increased walking speed (11). From evaluating study methods, I hypothesized where the dog was in relation to the human, potentially influenced the human’s walking speed. Walking speed has been associated with stability and decreased falling risk among PwMS (12).
Reviewing recent publications on dog-walking related injuries makes me even more adamant about teaching PwMS to educate their own pets to LLW. This not only reduces the likelihood of falls, but the success potentially empowers PwMS and increases exercise because walking the dog becomes incredibly pleasurable.
Nanette Lai was diagnosed with Relapsing-Remitting MS in 2008. Her education includes PhD candidacy in Epidemiology from the University of Guelph, and a Master of Arts from the University of Toronto where she majored in Medical Anthropology. As a pet care professional, Nanette has worked as a veterinary professional since 1999 and received accreditation as a professional pet trainer from PetSmart in 2005. Nanette is a member of the Pet Professionals Guild (PPG) and the Canadian Association of Professional Dog Trainers (CAPDT).
As part of TraXel, Nanette aims to contribute content aligning with the company’s mission to help other patients with chronic conditions (including MS) live their best lives every day. The content will be presented in the form of instructional videos via TraXel’s podcast, for other pet owners with MS to virtually train their own pet dogs at home. Upcoming podcasts will demonstrate accessible positive reinforcement pet dog training because Nanette believes anyone can learn the mechanics and teach their own pet dogs to have incredible manners. She refers to this form of virtual dog training as positive reinforcement on steroids, because the methods she uses are effective and gives fast results (without the side effects)!
Allen, K. (2003). Are pets a healthy pleasure? The influence of pets on blood pressure. Current directions in psychological science, 12(6), 236-239.
Friedmann, E. (2013). The role of pets in enhancing human well-being: physiological. The Waltham book of human-animal interaction: Benefits and responsibilities of pet ownership, 33.
Hussein, S. M., Soliman, W. S., & Khalifa, A. A. (2021). Benefits of pets’ ownership, a review based on health perspectives. Journal of Internal Medicine and Emergency Research, 2(1), 1-9.
Kretzler, B., König, H. H., & Hajek, A. (2022). Pet ownership, loneliness, and social isolation: a systematic review. Social psychiatry and psychiatric epidemiology, 57(10), 1935-1957.
Scoresby, K. J., Strand, E. B., Ng, Z., Brown, K. C., Stilz, C. R., Strobel, K., ... & Souza, M. (2021). Pet ownership and quality of life: a systematic review of the literature. Veterinary sciences, 8(12), 332.
Siegel, J. M. (2011). Pet ownership and health. The psychology of the human-animal bond: A resource for clinicians and researchers, 167-177.
Oliver-Hall, H., Ratschen, E., Tench, C. R., Brooks, H., Constantinescu, C. S., & Edwards, L. (2021). Pet ownership and multiple sclerosis during COVID-19. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(23), 12683.
Arroyo-Anlló, E. M., Sánchez, J. C., Ventola, A. R. M., Ingrand, P., Neau, J. P., & Gil, R. (2020). Procedural Learning Improves Cognition in Multiple Sclerosis. Journal of Alzheimer's disease : JAD, 74(3), 913–924. https://doi.org/10.3233/JAD-191083
Plante, A., Bedrossian, N., Cadotte, G., Piché, A., Michael, F., Bédard, S., ... & Doré, I. (2023). Pet ownership and lifestyle behaviours of immunosuppressed individuals and their relatives in the context of COVID-19 pandemic. Preventive Medicine Reports, 33, 102210.
Townsend, L., Dixon, L., & Buckley, L. (2022). Lead pulling as a welfare concern in pet dogs: What can veterinary professionals learn from current research?. Veterinary record, 191(10)
Fjeldstad, C., & Pardo, G. (2017). Immediate Effect of a Service Dog on Walking Speed in Individuals with Multiple Sclerosis and Gait Dysfunction: A Pilot Study. International journal of MS care, 19(1), 40–41.https://doi.org/10.7224/1537-2073.2015-089
Theunissen, K., Plasqui, G., Boonen, A., Brauwers, B., Timmermans, A., Meyns, P., … & Feys, P. (2021). The relationship between walking speed and the energetic cost of walking in persons with multiple sclerosis and healthy controls: a systematic review. Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair, 35(6), 486–500.
Maxson, R., Leland, C. R., McFarland, E. G., Lu, J., Meshram, P., & Jones, V. C. (2023). Epidemiology of Dog Walking-Related Injuries Among Adults Presenting to US Emergency Departments, 2001–2020. Medicine and science in sports and exercise.