Treating Addiction with Animals

As many pet owners can attest, there are numerous benefits of animal companionship. Studies have shown that interacting with pets can reduce stress and anxiety by lowering cortisol levels. Pets can also decrease your blood pressure, cholesterol levels and triglyceride levels, according to the CDC.

Given these health benefits, it’s no surprise that animals, including dogs, cats, horses, dolphins and rabbits, are used in many forms of therapy today. Service animals can assist people who have visual and hearing disabilities, mental illness, autism, seizures and other health conditions.

When it comes to addiction recovery, animal-assisted therapies are becoming more common and more effective than ever.

Animals Give Addicts Companionship and Purpose

Interaction with animals, most commonly dogs and horses, can be used to improve a recovering addict’s physical, mental, emotional and social functions. This approach builds nurturing relationships with the animals as specific therapeutic goals are met.

Recovering addicts don’t just spend time with the animal, they also perform caregiving tasks that help them regain a sense of responsibility and fulfillment. Tasks like walking, brushing and petting the animal help the patient improve fine motor skills, balance and focus. The emotional bond they form with the pet increases their self-esteem, trust and empathy. The value of service, teamwork, self-expression, communication and cooperation are also emphasized.

Animals can help to bridge the gap for those who have a hard time letting others in by providing non-judgmental, non-threatening companionship. A common issue among recovering addicts is a loss of trust. The stress relief and comfort these pets provide make it easier to open up. In fact, a study at Seton Addictions Services found that patients felt more comfortable sharing with their addiction counselors when their therapy dog was present.

Many Reputable Centers Use Pet Therapy

While it’s not a new form of therapy for substance use disorders, animal-assisted therapy has grown in popularity in recent years. Many well-known, established facilities offer pet therapy programs, including:

  • Betty Ford Center. Specializes in therapy with dogs, known as canine therapy.
  • Hazelden. Offers equine therapy, or therapy with horses.
  • Promises. Offers wolfdog therapy.
  • Morningside Recovery. Allows patients to bring their pets with them for extra support and comfort.

Pet Therapy for Criminal Rehabilitation

Prisons have started offering dog training programs for their inmates, many of whom are incarcerated on drug-related charges and are in recovery from substance abuse. The puppies typically come from local shelters and are often set to be euthanized because of overpopulation. Much like the prisoners, these dogs are given a second chance through these programs. As the inmates rehabilitate the dogs, they rehabilitate themselves in the process. The puppies complete the program when they’re between one and two years old and then go on to continue their training as therapy dogs.

The men and women in the [canine therapy] program are the most successful inmates upon release.

- Phillip Tedeschi, executive director at the Institute for Human-Animal Connection in Denver.

With such well-documented, positive results, animal-assisted therapy will likely become a much more common treatment for addictions in the coming years.

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