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CFS and Dog Ownership

Four years ago, my darling little West Highland Terrier, Meg, passed away at the grand old age of 17.

I was devastated, but at the same time, there was some relief. In the last year or two of her life, I was also caring for my elderly mother, who was fast declining with dementia and mobility difficulties. Meg, too, had her ageing problems, with blindness and mobility difficulties, which meant I had to carry her up and down stairs, and over steps.

As you can imagine, for someone with Chronic Fatigue, those years were a bit of a challenge. So when Meg departed, and a year later my mother moved into permanent care, I found myself on my own and free of responsibility. Although tinged with sadness, it was a huge relief, and I felt free for the first time to rest when I wanted, and go out when I could. I had also improved my energy levels by practising meditation, light yoga and making sure I rested when I needed to.

Then came Covid and lockdown. So much for freedom! I actually believe that I had Covid, a few months before lockdown, which months later I found had worsened my Chronic Fatigue symptoms. I found that I could not walk for long distances without developing fibromyalgia and brain fog.

However, I also started thinking about getting a little canine companion again, and I started looking at the Rescue Centre websites. I looked for a small dog; one that wouldn’t need too much walking, and light enough to be picked up without a huge amount of effort.

It took me two years to find the right dog. But here’s the strangest thing. As soon as I got the phone call to say that I could come and meet her, I started getting feelings of panic. I was gaining a furry companion, yes, but I was suddenly aware of the total freedom I was giving up, and the commitment I was making. I wanted a dog, but I also loved that freedom. I was also worried about how having a dog might affect my energy levels.

Despite all these misgivings, I went through the motions of meeting and applying for this dog. I made the commitment and ignored all my anxieties about the sacrifices I would be making. Besides, I had a neighbour who said he would be glad to walk her whenever I wanted, and family ten miles away who had just lost their own little fur baby and who would be more than glad to look after her from time to time.

So, enter Tilly, the Yorkshire Terrier. Isn’t she adorable?

She’s been with me for over a month now – and I am going to fully admit that it has been a bit of a roller coaster for me. Tilly is three years old; officially an adult, but she still has a strong puppyish nature that wants attention and play much of the day. And she loves walks!

For the first few days and weeks, and did not feel that going for a walk every morning was seriously affecting my energy levels. So far so good. I then tried doing a second walk later in the day. In the third week I had a major CFS crash – something which I have not had for several months now. Woops! I was doing too much.

More internal thoughts of ‘have I done the right thing?’ and also feelings of guilt: ‘my dog loves a second walk, but I just can’t do it.’ I have woken up in the mornings, with this little furry face asking for love, attention, play and food, and I have suddenly thought ‘What have I done??’ There is another living being relying on me for its welfare and happiness, and after two years of living alone I have become so used to not having that kind of responsibility.

On the other hand, here is this friendly, cuddly little creature, full of love, who loves to curl up close to me on the sofa and makes me smile and laugh.

It’s a bit of a double-whammy for me. There is the major adjustment of having a new dog, and working out a routine together, training and getting to know each other. But for a person with CFS, there is also the difficult challenge of making sure I look after myself while making sure that the dog gets her needs met as well. That is a big learning curve.

All this sounds as though I may be regretting having a dog now when my CFS symptoms have returned to some degree. To be honest, I did have some feelings of regret at times, but that does not mean to say that I have once regretted having Tilly, if that makes sense. Look at that cute little chocolate and caramel face. How could I?

My purpose in writing this candid post is to seriously discuss the advantages and disadvantages of owning a dog when you have CFS – especially if you live alone like me and have no or few other people who can help. I want to reach out to other people with CFS and have found dog ownership challenging, but hopefully also have found it to be a really positive experience.

After a month of dog ownership, my thoughts on this topic are as follows:

  • One has to expect a period of adjustment, learning what your dog needs, whilst making sure you also look after yourself. It is bound to feel challenging at first until you settle into a routine that suits you both.

  • It is important that you do not allow yourself to feel guilty if you are unable to walk your dog for a day or two. Dogs are adaptable and their love is unconditional – they won’t hold it against you. However, make sure you do have friends or family – or perhaps a professional dog walker – who can step in when you need to rest.

  • There are ways of teaching your dog the times when you need to rest. And if you need to have some time in bed, most dogs will be very happy to curl up with you and keep you company.

  • Find toys that will keep your dog happy and active without involving you too much in energetic play. Kongs full of treats that the dog has to work to get at are useful, chews that last longer than a few minutes, and having an enclosed garden where s/he can potter about in for a while.

They say that it takes 2 to 3 months to properly settle down with a new dog. But after six weeks I’m now finding the line between making sure her needs are met and making sure I also look after myself. We have settled down together, and I’ve stopped thinking about what life was like with total freedom. I’m just enjoying this little creature who has brought love and laughter into my daily life.

So, to summarise, if you’re worried about CFS and dog ownership, I would say it is truly worth it. The love and companionship they bring outweighs any of the costs. But make sure that you will be able to balance the dog’s needs with yours, and that you have support for dog walking and play if necessary.

Please do leave comments below if you have your own experiences of owning a dog when you have CFS – I would love to hear from you!

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