Got A Migraine? Get A Dog!

Doctors tell their patients all kinds of crazy advice about how to improve their migraines. And I'm sure over the years my patients have thought some of my advice was a bit off the wall. But when I started investigating the benefits of dogs for reducing common chronic pain syndromes, like migraine, I got a lot of questioning looks.

A new routine

When my family was joined by a soft-coated wheaten terrier puppy, we had to make lots of changes so the puppy would be properly scheduled. Being a bit compulsive, my son and I posted a puppy training schedule on the refrigerator that had the whole day planned, with times for meals, play, sleep, socializing, potty breaks, etc. It soon became clear that we were not only scheduling our puppy's day—we were also scheduling our own! And as we fell into a doggie lifestyle, we noticed we were eating better, sleeping better, getting in regular exercise, and feeling happier. During this time, I also noticed that it was easier to get dog-owning patients to stick with a regular schedule for meals and sleep and keep up with a walking program.

Taking a closer look

This led me to see what benefits occur from dogs in our lives, inspiring me to write Fit As Fido: Follow Your Dog to Better Health and my new book A Doctor's Guide to Dog Therapy and Healing: The Power of Wagging Tails. Although you can't find specific research projects testing how dogs affect migraines, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that our beloved pets can help reduce many migraine triggers and help relieve pain. Here's a bit of the evidence:

  • Petting a dog actually reduces pain severity. In an incredible experiment reported in the journal Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, researchers found that pain levels in hospital patients dropped by one-third after spending 15 minutes petting one of the dogs trained and approved to visit hospital patients (otherwise known as "therapy dogs.") Another study found patients reduced their use of pain killers by nearly half when they had regular dog visits.
  • Aerobic exercise helps reduce migraine pain and dogs are great exercise motivators. People who own dogs consistently have been shown to complete more regular, healthy aerobic exercise than folks without a dog. Excuses like bad weather, extra laundry, bad hair day, etc. may work for you and your human walking buddy, but no self-respecting pooch will stand for this nonsense. And when you get "the look" at walking time, you're likely to get out there and get in that healthy exercise.
  • Stress is the number one migraine trigger for most people and dogs are terrific stress busters. Petting a dog lowers your heart rate, decreases your blood pressure, and reduces your body's stress response. It's not the stress itself that triggers migraine—it's your body's physiological response to stress.
  • Skipping meals and getting dehydrated can trigger migraines. When breakfast time comes for Fido, do you ever hear him say, "No time for breakfast today. I need more time fixing my hair, checking my emails, posting on Facebook." Fido doesn't skip meals and neither should you. Dogs also do a great job of taking advantage of drinks throughout the day, lapping up water in their water dishes, rain water on the street, and even snacking on snow. Keeping yourself hydrated too is a great way to keep migraines in check.
  • Most people don't get their needed 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night and inadequate sleep has been linked to increased migraine activity. Dogs are great role models for good sleep and will probably remind you that it's bedtime when you want to add one more Tweet or start another movie after what should be your bedtime.

Need more proof?

In a fascinating study, Dr. Serpell at the Department of Clinical Veterinary Medicine in Cambridge evaluated new pet owners and people without pets for the occurrence of what were called "minor" health problems—which included headaches. While there was no change in minor health problems over six months among non-pet owners, minor health problems dropped by 50 percent after just one month of adding a dog to the household. And minor health problems continued to be reduced in dog owners for the six months of the study.

Visit for tips on using your dog as your "canine personal trainer" to help you become a happier, healthier, and hopefully more migraine-free you!

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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