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Pets and their Benefit to the Addiction Recovery Process


If you’ve ever owned a pet, chances are, you’ve already experienced many of the benefits: decreased blood pressure, decreased triglycerides and cholesterol, decreased feelings of loneliness since there’s always a fuzzy friend at your side to help carry you through the day [1].

For people in the midst of the addiction recovery process, having a pet can offer even more benefits.

Pets and Therapy: The History

As early as the 19th century, Florence Nightingale discovered that animals could offer incredible benefits to patients suffering from a range of psychiatric disorders [2].

When patients in her care interacted with horses, they experienced much lower levels of anxiety, which can make it easier for psychiatric patients to talk about the issues they’re facing, deal with them, and, ultimately, move through the recovery process.

Even Freud took his dog along to many of his therapy sessions, encouraging his patients to talk more freely.

It’s little wonder, then, that animals have made the move into addiction recovery and therapy. Many people find that working with animals soothes the soul.

Many recovering addicts find that working with a pet offers extraordinary health benefits, both when it comes to physical health and emotional health.

How Do Animals Assist People in Recovery?

As a recovering addict, you may feel that you already have more than enough things to deal with. Does adding a pet to the mix really make things better?

It turns out, animals can assist people in recovery in a number of important ways.

1.  Animals can reduce many of the negative emotions experienced by addicts

According to a survey conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, some people are more likely to abuse drugs than others–including people with a history of aggression [3].

When working with animals, on the other hand, many people feel a reduction in negative emotions, which decreases the need to seek drugs or alcohol in order to cope.

2.  Working with an animal can help reduce stress levels

A 2014 study found that, rather than increasing stress levels in recovering addicts, having a pet on hand actually helps decrease overall stress [4].

In some cases, addicts might prefer not to have a pet at home–or might not have the resources to care for a pet.

In this case, working with a different type of animal, including horses or even dolphins, at an approved facility can help addicts experience many of those benefits.

Having a pet naturally decreases levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, in the body.

Since studies have found that increased cortisol can go along with increased dropout rates when it comes to rehabilitation, that decrease in cortisol can actually increase the odds that the addict will complete the treatment program [6].

3.  By working with an animal, addicts experience a greater sense of accountability

Many addicts feel that their friends and family members have long since abandoned them, or that they may expect them to continue to fail just as they have in the past.

An animal, on the other hand, adds in that accountability–and an animal won’t stop believing in you or trusting you, even if you backslide.

Knowing that the animal needs care, however, can provide a continuing incentive for the addict to keep moving forward in a healthy manner.

4.  Working with animals decreases hostility [4]

Some kinds of animals, including dogs and horses, naturally require their handlers to keep their tempers under control and reduce hostility when working with them.

Others are simply there, letting the handler know that they care for them and naturally reducing the urge to be hostile.

Working with animals on a regular basis can steadily decrease overall hostility levels, making it easier for addicts to make that important transition in the way they treat other people, as well.

5.  Having responsibility for a pet encourages healthy habits [5]

When you have a dog or work with a horse, they need to be exercised, and they need it regularly.

Failure to take the dog for a walk, for example, can result in whining and a poorly-behaved animal. Not only that, taking the dog out is rewarding: it increases the bond between master and animal and often decreases stress.

Animals also have to eat on a regular basis, which can help remind their caregivers to feed themselves, too.

Over time, this can create more positive associations with healthy habits, which can help both body and mind recover from the previous addiction.

6.  Animals help keep the addict’s mind busy

When you’re left to your own thoughts–as occurs all too often throughout the rehabilitation and recovery process–you have too much time to think about the choices you’re making and what you’ve left behind.

Many addicts find themselves dwelling on the possibility of relapse–and the more they dwell on it, the more likely it becomes that they will fall back into old habits.

When you’re working with a pet, on the other hand, you have far less time to dwell on those too-familiar thoughts.

You must think about grooming the animal, playing with it, and cleaning up after it. It has to be fed on a regular basis.

Not only that, it’s hard to be focused on falling back into addiction when there’s a fuzzy face that wants your attention.

Sometimes, animals are the best reason to stay clean. Animals, especially therapy animals, often become much more than pets.

They become trusted companions–and many people feel guilty for betraying those furry friends if they start to slide back into old habits.

For these individuals, a pet can become the reason they choose to stay clean and keep on with that journey toward recovery even on the hardest days.

Working with Animals in Recovery

Many facilities that offer addiction treatment and recovery have found that in addition to therapy, detoxification, and the other rehabilitation services they offer, providing animal-assisted therapy can provide exceptional benefit for their residents.

The type of therapy offered by the facility may vary based on the number of patients, the funds available, and the type of animal that the facility works with; however, there are several common options.

1. Pet-Friendly Facilities

In pet-friendly facilities, addicts are able to bring their pets along with them as they go through rehab. The rehabilitation process is often frightening.

Addicts know that they’re headed into the unknown, both in terms of what treatment will look like and in terms of what their lives will look like when they leave the centre.

Having a familiar pet by their sides, on the other hand, can decrease that stress associated with the unknown, providing something familiar to hold on to as they move through the addiction treatment and recovery process [7].

2. Working with Dogs in Recovery

Many treatment facilities choose dogs as their primary source of animal-enhanced therapy for addicts.

Dogs are loyal, trusting, and, of course, warm and furry.

In a pet-friendly rehab, you have the option of taking your own dog along; but even without that, you can take on your recovery in a facility where you have the opportunity to work with dogs on a regular basis.

Dogs, in particular, offer a number of advantages to the recovery process:

  • Dogs naturally reduce stress and anxiety [8]. This, in turn, can increase the odds that you’ll make it all the way through the rehabilitation process.
  • Working or playing with a dog can boost your mood immediately–and with none of the side effects offered by many traditional medications.
  • Working or playing with a dog can offer long-term decreases in stress and anxiety.
  • Dogs can jump-start physical activity, which many addicts find can aid in the recovery process. Dogs require a great deal of physical interaction to help burn off energy. That natural playfulness can offer incredible benefits to people in the middle of recovering from addiction.

Dogs can provide benefits at all stage of the recovery process. Many people find that adopting a dog after they leave rehabilitation, if they don’t already have one waiting for them at home, can help offer many of those benefits long after rehab.

Not only that, dogs help encourage social interaction as addicts leave their treatment facilities behind, which can help them feel like more active, engaged parts of society again. Dog owners naturally chat with one another as their dogs interact on walks, at dog parks, and even on the street.

Dogs can also be excellent ice breakers, both with strangers and as addicts attempt to reform bonds with family members.

3. Equine Therapy

Like dogs, horses are used frequently by rehabilitation facilities across the world. Horses read the moods of their handlers instinctively, often providing immediate feedback in the form of their own behaviours.

As a result, addicts and others in recovery are more likely to notice their own behaviours and emotions, which gives them the ability to work to positively change those interactions [5].

In equine therapy, typically, addicts work in a facility where they can work with horses on a regular basis. This may include a wide range of interactions: caring for the horses, cleaning out stalls, and riding.

Not only does working with these animals make it easier for addicts to understand and identify many of the emotions that may have driven them to drugs in the first place, as they work with horses, but many addicts also find their self-confidence growing and their self-awareness improving.

4. Cats and Therapy

Unlike dogs and horses, cats are not immediately and automatically loyal. Cats, as a whole, tend to be more aloof and take longer to adapt to a new person in their lives. That doesn’t mean, however, that cats don’t have benefits as therapy animals.

First, cats reduce stress and increase the production of serotonin, which can mean better sleep and a more peaceful, happy individual as a whole [5].

They have a natural calming effect that’s impossible to ignore, especially when they jump into someone’s lap and start purring as they cuddle close.

In addition to these benefits, cats may require less demanding interaction than other types of therapy animals. Unlike horses and dogs, cats tend to be low maintenance. They do not require regular exercise, though regular play is certainly a benefit for both cat and owner.

Coming home to a cat may seem like an easier transition to an addict who is already struggling with responsibility or not sure they are ready to take on a pet in addition to their other struggles.

5. Exotic Animals

While the most commonly-used animals in addiction therapy are dogs and horses, with the occasional cat thrown in for variety, there is no research that suggests that the type of animal used in the recovery process will change the addict’s outcomes.

Working with any type of animal can boost mood, improve self-control, and offer companionship.

Many treatment facilities have experimented with the use of exotic animals in the recovery process, including dolphins, llamas, birds, and more–and all of these animals have their own unique benefit.

Ultimately, animals all have the ability to offer understanding companionship, a lack of judgment, and a sense of responsibility, not to mention keeping recovering addicts busy so that their minds can’t return to old habits of addiction.

A new pet or a new animal to learn about can also offer a much-needed break from routine and a new perspective on what comes next in life, which can provide extraordinary benefits during the recovery process.

During the recovery process after addiction, many people find that working with an animal, whether a pet or an animal specifically trained to help provide companionship during rehabilitation, can offer a number of advantages.

If you’re looking for a drug or alcohol treatment facility for yourself or a loved one, consider the benefits that animal companionship can offer throughout this process.

While many people are able to successfully move through the treatment process with or without an animal, that simple addition can substantially increase the odds of success, giving an addict a new lease on life.