Approximately 70 % of all American households have a pet, so it makes sense that many IC patients also have pets.(1) Taking care of a pet with a chronic health condition can be a challenge, but the benefits can outweigh the drawbacks. And research has found that pet ownership has all sorts of positive health benefits such as lowered blood pressure, less risk for anxiety and depression and increased social interaction.(2) Pets can bring the benefit of an interpersonal relationship but without the stress the such a relationship can have with a human counterpart.
ICN Founder and President, Jill Osborne, has had feline companions throughout her journey with IC that have helped her through hard days. I’ve had dogs who have kept me laughing and encouraged even on difficult days. No matter the kind of pet, though, IC patients can attest to the healing power of pets.
(NOTE: Some names have been changed in part or in whole to protect identity.)
Ronda Wyatt, a 47-year-old IC patient in Louisiana, said she’s been drawn to dogs, especially German Shepherds, since she was 5 years old and one pushed her out of the way of an oncoming car and got hit. While she’s had numerous dogs since she was diagnosed with IC in November of 2006, she currently has eight German Shepherds, including three puppies. Her dog, Dini, who she’s had for just over a year, is closest to her right now.
“[Dini] comes to me and senses things,” Wyatt said. “And always when I’m depressed she loves on me. She’ll come and sit by me and calm me down. She helps me out tremendously.”
Wyatt, whose children are grown, said having dogs is a lot like having children in that they are dependent on her to take care of them. But dogs are also incredibly loyal and constant companions who can encourage her in so many ways. When she recently moved away from most of her family, she first got one dog and then decided to get another. Since then her pack of canines has grown with breeding the dogs as well. By the time she welcomed her second dog, Dini, into her home, she found herself feeling better.
“It was like my depression just started going away,” Wyatt said. “The more we got, the more my anxiety and depression went away. It’s like I gave them something, and they gave me my life back. It’s a really good experience that I’ve had with them.”
She said the dogs help her get outside and into the sun more. She can’t always play really physically with them because of her pain, but she can usually at least throw a ball for them or take them on walks.
“It’s lifted my depression so much just seeing them happy and playing,” she said. “It kind of brings life back into you. It’s an unconditional love. It’s not the same as with a human.”
Because stress, anxiety and depression cause her IC symptoms to flare, Wyatt said having the dogs ease these symptoms have also helped her bladder pain decrease. Just petting a dog is enough to help her feel calmer.
“When I get anxious or I’m mad…I just start petting them,” she said. “I instantly calm down. They’re loving the attention I’m giving them, and it just makes everything calm down in me. I’ve noticed that my IC pain has actually decreased a lot. I think it’s because it’s lifted my spirits.”
Maranda Allen, a 19-year-old IC patient in Illinois, related to Wyatt. She said she has two Doberman Pinschers, Red and Reese, who keep her company while her boyfriend is working seven days a week.
“They have helped me so much when dealing with my conditions, especially when I am depressed,” Allen said. “They will lie with me all day and night, snuggling and giving me kisses. And they don’t judge me for anything. Some days I’m not able to even do the dishes, and they could care less if my house or myself is a mess. Without my dogs, I’d be so lonely.”
Allen recalled a rough day after her third cystoscopy when she was upset because of the test results and because of her pain. She cried the entire way home from the hospital. When she got home, her dogs immediately sensed something was amiss.
“My dogs were so happy to see me, but they knew I was hurting,” she said. “They jumped on the couch, one on each side of me, and just laid there with their heads in my lap. They let me know that they are always here for me, especially when I need them the most.”
Though dogs may be known as mankind’s best friend, cats also bring comfort to IC patients. Vanessa Sherman, a 29-year-old IC patient in Alabama, said after her sister moved in with her a few years ago to go to college, she got a Siamese cat to help ease her sister’s loneliness. The cat stole all of their hearts.
“Little did I know how much this cat would help our whole family,” Sherman said. “He isn’t just a pet. He is part of the family. Oliver, nicknamed Ollie, would lie with me when I was ill. He would snuggle. He always knew when I wasn’t feeling well, and he would be so comforting.”
A few years ago, Sherman was in the hospital for a week. When she got home, Ollie followed her everywhere. She wasn’t cleared to go back to work, yet, and was feeling depressed.
“He would lie with me,” she said. “He’d love on me and rub his head on my face when I cried.”
Ollie also bonded well with Sherman’s young daughter. When Sherman wasn’t feeling well enough to play with her very much, the cat would. And when Sherman found out she couldn’t have any more children, Ollie was there to love on her and her daughter.
“He was everywhere she was,” Sherman said of Ollie and her daughter. “He entertained her when I couldn’t.”
Though her sister and Ollie no longer live with them, Sherman still considers Ollie a part of her family and refers to him as her nephew. She doesn’t believe that pets are just pets. She said Ollie has different moods just like people do.
“He is special,” Sherman said. “Pets are loving and share a bond with family. They comfort us when we need it. Somehow they just know. A pet like this is a true blessing.”
Rebecca Marcum, a 35-year-old IC patient in Colorado, agreed with Sherman and has been fortunate enough to have had two cats like this. Her first one, Moo, was a part of her life for 12 years until he died in 2013.
“I went a short time without a companion,” Marcum said. “But, I didn’t do very well emotionally during that intermediary.”
After about a year of looking for the right animal, Marcum found her current cat, Snow, and the two have been inseparable ever since. Marcum said they help each other.
“Snow is what I would consider a needy cat,” she said. “But, it’s a mutual relationship. She wants to sit on my lap to be pet, but I need her to do that so I can hear and feel her purring body. She follows me around the house wherever I go.”
While Marcum said sometimes she doesn’t get a moment to herself since Snow even follows her into the bathroom, their relationship is very beneficial.
“What she provides is a distraction from the incessant pain and discomfort, especially when I’m at my worst,” she said. “The action of petting her provides a way to lower my blood pressure when I’m in a high pain and high stress time. And then there’s the joy she brings. Watching her chirp at birds or squirrels improves my mood and keeps my mind off of the constant that is IC. All of these things reduce stress overall and lower the intensity of the IC.”
Along with IC, Marcum also has severe anxiety that can trigger panic attacks. And her panic attacks trigger an IC flare, so she does her best to keep her anxiety in check. However, she recently had an incredibly stressful event and began hyperventilating.
“Snow started moving closer and closer to me until I was calm enough to let her on my lap,” Marcum said. “It was her presence and knowing she had a goal to get to my lap that made me calm down. We sat with her in my lap for over an hour, and I was able to avoid a complete flare up. Having a companion who requires a small amount of care, and in return you receive such a big return with love and companionship, it really helps combat the horrible thing that IC is.”
Deciding whether to get a pet
If you don’t have a pet or are thinking of adding another pet to your family, you want to make sure that you’re as ready for pet parenthood as you can be. Getting a pet is a big decision. Here are a few questions to answer before you go ahead and add to your family.
- Can you afford a pet? Aside from the cost of the pet itself, consider also the costs for feeding, grooming (if needed) and healthcare.
- Do you have time to devote to the pet? Especially if you are getting a kitten or puppy, think about whether you actually have time and ability to house-train them. You also need to have enough time to interact with your pet at home.
- Are you able to handle the physical demands of a pet? Think about whether you are able to care for the pet physically in ways it needs. Be sure to consider options for animal care during times of bladder flares. You want to have a plan in mind before you bring your pet home. Also think about whether you can handle the additional cleaning responsibilities for the pet you’re considering.
- Is this the right time to get a pet? Some dogs and cats can live 18-20 years. Some birds and reptiles live 40 years or more. Assess whether you are in a position right now to make the length of time commitment your pet requires.(3)
- Will a pet be a good fit where you live? If you are renting, you may have restrictions on what kind (if any) of pet you can have. Be sure to check into that before getting a pet. Otherwise, think about where you live and whether you have the space needed for your pet both indoors and outdoors.(4)
- If you already have pets, will they handle a new pet OK? Some pets are laidback and fine with having a new pet come into the home. Others aren’t so much. Think about the pet(s) you already have and whether they would adjust OK to a new pet. Consult with your veterinarian as well for additional input, including how to best introduce your current pet to a new one.(4)
- How old are your children? The age of your children might at least determine what kind of pet you get. Some pets aren’t very comfortable around small children, especially if they are older pets who haven’t spent time with kids. If you don’t yet have children but plan to, be sure to look for a pet who is laidback enough that introducing a baby into its life later on would go well.
Figuring out what kind of pet to get
In dealing with IC, you probably want a lower maintenance pet. And that’s OK! Between cats and dogs, dogs definitely have a wider array of differences in personalities and physical needs. Cats are pretty independent. British shorthair cats top of the list on independence.(5)
Dogs breeds, on the other hand, really do vary. You definitely want to research various breeds before deciding on what kind of dog to get. My family, for example, needed a non-shedding dog because my husband has bad allergies. When we got our first dog, we knew we’d have babies during his lifetime and wanted to find a laidback breed. We chose a Lhasa Apso. Our first Lhasa Apso, Buckles, was a faithful companion for 10-1/2 years until we lost him to cancer. When we were ready to add a pet to our family again a few years later, our kids were 6 and 9, so we still needed a family friendly breed. We stuck with what we knew and added a Lhasa Apso, Pixel, to our family in 2019.
You may have a breed in mind already, whether it is purebred or mixed. Either way, make sure that its size, physical needs and personality will line up well with your lifestyle. You want a pet you can love on and care for but that won’t make your life lots more challenging. Check out this list of 26 low-maintenance dog breeds for ideas on some pooches who don’t need quite as much and might be a good fit.
Don’t forget also to broaden your scope of pet ideas. Cats and dogs are wonderful companions, but there are also some excellent other pets who are low maintenance and can be a great addition to your family. Consider the following pets who might be a good fit for you.(5) (Be sure to research any type of pet you get thoroughly before deciding.)
- Hermit crab
- Bearded dragon
- Bedford E. Pet-ownership: household penetration rates 1988-2020. Statistica. July 23, 2021.
- Davis JL. 5 Ways Pets Can Improve Your Health. WebMD. 2004.
- Abedin S. Are You Ready to Get a Pet?. Fetch by WebMD. June 10, 2011.
- American Veterinary Medical Association. Selecting a Pet for Your Family.
- Sengwe S. 21 Truly Low-Maintenance Pets Because a Dog Is Out of the Question. Pure Wow. Feb. 28, 2021.