When most people hear the words addiction rehab or drug detox, “warm and fuzzy” is the last description that comes to mind. But many treatment facilities and sober living homes have introduced pets into their program. Dogs, cats and horses provide immense medical benefits to patients, practitioners and staff members throughout the treatment and recovery process, bringing a level of emotional healing that can’t be found in any other way. Pets help addiction recovery by offering an unspoken reminder that unconditional love is the purest and finest love of all and everyone is worthy of its touch.
Pain Is Lessened When the Focus Is on Something Else
A common request by holistic therapists and counselors during recovery is for patients to stay focused on their own personal healing. This is wise advice but there are times when a time out would be a welcome respite to all the hard work. Animal-assisted therapy provides a positive, emotional release backed by science.
Consider your own experiences about having a pet at home. No matter what kind of day you’ve had, when you walk in the door, your pet wants nothing more than your love and attention and they give it without question. For example, a dog can sense your feelings and adjust by offering a gentle nuzzle, a kiss or beg the opportunity to play.
Many people struggling with addiction can develop mental health issues such as anxiety or depressive disorders. Pet therapy can ease the stress of emotional anguish. In fact, the very presence of a pet lowers the level of our stress hormone, cortisol, allowing for a greater sense of wellbeing.
Mindfulness Comes Easier with Pet Interaction
Imagine running your fingers across the back of a golden retriever, German shepherd or tabby cat. A tail begins to wag or you hear a subtle purr. Your touch receives an automatic positive response. More than likely, you continue to caress your dog or cat and the positive response continues. It’s almost mesmerizing and suddenly, the only thing going on in your life in that moment is the bond between you and your pet. It’s powerful and can go a long way to restoring calm in a hectic day. Mindfulness (living in the moment) is one of the more challenging practices to teach but a pet’s presence can bridge the learning curve, making the process of addiction recovery a bit easier to accept.
Pets Calm the Physical Indicators of Stress
If you were raised in a household with a dog or a cat, reflect on times when you were upset about something. Heading to your room or going outside to step away from other family members was a normal behavior but your pet was the one who consoled you. You may have even reached out to your pet for comfort as it almost felt like second-nature. In a way, that’s exactly what it was.
Reset Unhealthy Conditions
With anxiety, the body responds by setting off a host of reactions. Heart rate, respiration, perspiration and blood pressure increase while muscles constrict. A pet will reduce all these responses to stress, thereby providing an environmental equilibrium of sorts.
Therapy Dogs Provide the Right Principles for Addiction Rehab Service Providers
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), six evidence-based principles must be followed by a service provider to adequately address how trauma affects a patient and promote healing. A six-month, 2015 research study conducted in Canada focused on the use of therapy dogs to help treat people with addiction and mental illness. Patients experienced short term visits from the animals, and their behaviors and health patterns were monitored to assess feedback and results.
At the end of the study, University of Regina researchers realized that these therapy dogs provided patients with a deeper level of comfort, so much so, that they exhibited more emotional vulnerability during counseling sessions.
SAMHSA Six Evidence-Based Principles to Facilitate Healing from Trauma
Therapy dogs were found to foster the necessary tenets in support of patient healing during recovery for addiction and mental illness. These principles are:
- Transparency and trust
- Peer support, mutual self-help
- Mutuality and collaboration
- Historical, cultural and gender issues
- Empowerment, voice and choice
Different Animal-Assisted Therapy in Rehab Is Available
Not all people are comfortable being around animals though it doesn’t diminish the benefits that pet therapy brings. Some addiction treatment facilities integrate temporary visits with pets into their programs: equine therapy (horses), dogs, cats, rabbits and more. This is accomplished through recreational excursions to ranches or other facilities that house animals. Treatment centers can also schedule pet visits on a weekly basis, for example, with a provider that brings the pet to the rehab to help patients with socialization skills during group therapy or holistic practices.
Consistency, Reliability and Purpose Strengthen Sobriety
Many patients during their detox and drug treatment program look forward to the therapeutic elements that pets provide and want to continue by taking on their own pet during sober living and throughout recovery.
Pet ownership provides:
- Stress reduction
- Diversion from unhealthy thoughts or actions
- Mechanism to build self-esteem
- Conversation door-opener (in social settings)
- Personal growth through caring for another
One of the more difficult aspects of addiction recovery is how to readjust to mainstream society without the use of substances. Everyday life can set any person up for emotional or physical triggers that engage painful memories or responses that put long-term sobriety at risk. In addition, post-acute withdrawal symptoms (PAWS) can randomly occur weeks, months or years after initial drug detox is completed. The ongoing presence of a pet at one’s side can help alleviate these risks and episodes by providing comfort through an intuitiveness and gentle touch.
There are animals specifically trained for Assisted Animal or Service Dog designation though non-designated pets can still prove beneficial. Talk to a licensed veterinarian to find out what type of animal and specific breed would be the best match for you, based on your needs, your work schedule and the level of care that the pet requires.
Ask an Addiction Treatment Expert How Pet Therapy Assists Sobriety
Talk to Someone Who’s Been There. Talk to Someone Who Can Help. Arizona Addiction Recovery Center holds the highest accreditation (Joint Commission) and is Arizona’s premier rehab facility since 2007. Call 888-512-1705.
Authored by Melanie Stern, Content Director for Scottsdale Recovery Center, Arizona Addiction Recovery Centers and Cohn Media, LLC. Writer and broadcaster covering the following industries: addiction rehab, health care, entertainment, technology and advocate of clear communication, positivity and humanity at its best.