The Role of Pets During Recovery From Addiction

The calming presence of our pets has been found to be a valuable asset for individuals in treatment for drug or alcohol addiction. As anyone with a pet at home knows, the companionship and love that is so freely offered by our furry friends have abundant benefits in a person’s life. For someone beginning the recovery journey, these benefits become a treatment element, so to speak, providing an added layer of support to the individual as they embark on their new life in sobriety.

 

Entering rehab and winding through the treatment process, through detox, therapy, and classes can be a stressful and challenging time. It takes time to stabilize both physically and psychologically once detoxification is completed. By having a loving pet by one’s side it offers the individual a source of comfort and familiarity during a sometimes uncomfortable and lonely chapter in life.

 

Those who own and operate treatment centers are beginning to recognize the many benefits of providing a pet-friendly zone for clients who adapt better to the treatment environment with their pet along for the journey. In fact, for many individuals concerns about their pet while they are away at rehab can be a significant barrier to ever getting help. By allowing the pet to join the client, this obstacle is overcome, in addition to the advantages of their company in rehab.

 

How Pets Can Benefit the Recovery Process

When we think of addiction recovery, most will conjure up images of group therapy, 12-step groups, addiction education classes, and family counseling. While those are all intrinsic elements in the treatment of addiction, adding pet “therapy” can help set the stage for the individual in treatment to be more engaged and relaxed, thereby gaining more from the experience. Why is this? 

 

Animals are, in many ways, family members. The bond that we share with our pets is so woven into our daily lives, our routines, and our hearts that by incorporating that pet relationship into the recovery landscape individuals will feel more emotionally stable. This, in turn, allows the person to be more present in therapy and other related treatment elements.

 

Having one’s pet along at rehab becomes a type of therapy itself—call it animal therapy. This means that the presence of the pet provides an opportunity for the addict in treatment to become more accountable to others, including the pet, outside of their own egocentric needs. Just as equine therapy utilizes caring for a horse as part of the recovery program, the family pet can also draw these same benefits for the individual in rehab.

 

Benefits of Animal-Friendly Rehab Programs

 

Some of the benefits of having a pet present during rehab and in long-term recovery include:


Reduces stress.
Just being in the presence of your animal can induce relaxation and comfort. 

Distraction. The pet can provide a much-needed distraction from cravings or other discomforts associated with early recovery.

Encourages socializing. Social isolation in rehab is not uncommon. Having one’s pet there makes getting outside for walks with the animal an opportunity for socializing and forming new friendships.

Prevents loneliness. Being in treatment can be a lonely experience. Removed from family and friends for an extended period can bring on feelings of depression. By having one’s pet present at rehab those feelings of loneliness and depression are mitigated.

Brings a sense of security. Having one’s pet at rehab promotes a sense of safety and comfort.

Source of unconditional love. Our pets do not judge us for being an addict. Instead, they are a constant course of love and acceptance.

Promotes accountability. Shifting from the selfish addict behavior towards being accountable to others is key in recovery. Being responsible for the wellbeing and care of one’s pet will help promote that sense of accountability.

 

Pet Companionship Helps Dual Diagnosis

 

It is very common for someone struggling with addiction to also have a co-occurring mental health issue. Mood disorders, anxiety disorder, and other mental health disorders often coexist with substance abuse and addiction. When this is the case it is important for the individual to obtain specialized dual diagnosis treatment where both disorders can be simultaneously treated.

Having one’s pet in rehab is going to offer mental health benefits during the recovery process, from rehab and beyond. Not only can pets offer a diversion from the stress of rehab, but their presence alone can be calming, which reduces anxiety. Those who suffer from depression will benefit from the effects that having the beloved pet present have on neurotransmitters.

 

Clinical Studies About the Health Benefits of Pets

 

Rebecca A. Johnson, Ph.D., conducted a study targeting the neurochemical effects of dog ownership at the University of Missouri’s Center for the Study of Animal Wellness. The clinical results reported by Dr. Johnson found significant increases in the study participant’s cortisol, oxytocin, prolactin, and serotonin levels.  Johnson also found that both dogs and humans displayed positive health effects from their bond.

The American Psychological Association reported on a study from Miami University that pet ownership can have meaningful effects on improving overall feelings of belonging, staving off feelings of rejection, and providing a happier, healthier existence than those without a pet in their life.  “The present work presents considerable evidence that pets benefit the lives of their owners, both psychologically and physically, by serving as an important source of social support,” stated the authors of the study.

Another study funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH) looked at the health benefits of owning a pet.  Results showed a clear benefit of pet ownership in cardiovascular health (cholesterol and triglyceride levels), heart rates, and blood pressure. Because mental health and physical health are so intricately connected, it becomes evident that pet ownership benefits are comprehensive.

 

What to Look For in a Pet-Friendly Rehab

An animal-friendly addiction treatment program can provide a full spectrum of treatment elements while also including the client’s pet as intrinsic to the recovery process. A comprehensive rehab program will offer the following treatment elements: 

  • One-on-one psychotherapy
  • Group therapy
  • Family-oriented counseling
  • Medication management for co-occurring mental health disorders and/or medication-assisted treatment 
  • 12-step or similar recovery meetings
  • Inspiring guest speakers
  • Addiction to education
  • Gaining new coping skills, relaxation techniques, conflict resolution skills
  • Relapse prevention strategies
  • Adjunctive therapies
  • Holistic therapies

The pet-friendly rehab will allow the client to enjoy the benefits of having their treasured pet with them as they wind through this wide array of therapeutic activities and pave the way for a productive, fulfilling life in recovery.

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