Pets have an uncanny way of making us feel better. Whether we are sad, irritated, angry, anxious, or afraid, pets can induce calm, provide unconditional love and support, and compel us to get moving or become more social. There is no doubt that pet therapy can be beneficial in recovery.
The Mayo Clinic defines pet therapy as “a broad term that includes animal-assisted therapy and other animal-assisted activities. Animal-assisted therapy is a growing field that uses dogs or other animals to help people recover from or better cope with health problems, such as heart disease, cancer and mental health disorders.”
There are more than 50,000 therapy dogs in the United States, as mentioned by National Geographic. To note, pet therapy does not just include dogs. Other animals can be used in pet therapy like horses, rabbits, hedgehogs, and turtles, to name a few other species. Healthline writes that pet therapy can also be called animal-assisted therapy (AAT). AAT is a structured, formal set of sessions that can help people reach specific goals in treatment.
Pets and other animals can make many people feel safe and loved. Many different types of animals can also draw people out who are self-isolating and move them to start socializing. Horses, dogs, and cats can also have a calming effect.
People in recovery may feel shame or embarrassment about their substance use disorder. Pet therapy helps these individuals feel less that way as animals display unconditional love.
When you engage with dogs or cats or other animals, the oxytocin level rises after some time spent with the animal. Oxytocin is a hormone that facilitates bonding.
Almost anyone can reap the rewards from pet therapy. Specific to substance use recovery, these are the people who might find it most useful:
More than just the awesome love pets can offer you, animals in therapy can:
In addition, pet therapy or AAT is also very useful for:
Promoting responsibility: If you own a pet or volunteer at an animal shelter or stable, animals depend on you for food, fresh water, and a clean living environment. They also need your love. When you are providing these things while in recovery, it takes the focus off of your struggles, which can be a relief for some people.
Building your confidence and boosting your self-worth: Imagine how good it feels when you have completed all of the care tasks for your pet or an animal you are caring for. Even the smallest chore can increase joy for you and the animal. Animals are also great at showing gratitude. A wag of the dog’s tail, a cat’s purr and rub, a horse’s neigh—all are outward signs of appreciation.
Learning how to control emotional responses: Pets and animals respond to emotions. When they are around you, you may learn how to manage your emotions and responses based on the animal’s reaction. It also may help you learn how to adjust your response to the animal’s needs.
Creating a positive emotional outlet: Animals and pets are good emotional outlets for relieving anxiety and stress, decreasing depression, and other mental health problems.
Pet therapy in recovery can be of great value to you. No matter which animal, they can take your mind off all of your worries, physical and psychological pains, and other issues. Consider that just petting or touching a pet or animal releases the hormones prolactin and oxytocin in the brain. These two are responsible for elevating moods and promoting bonding.
Pet therapy may help you relax, give needed comfort, increase your mental stimulation, and provide a positive distraction. It may also give you an escape from negative feelings and make you happy for a while–a most definite perk.
Pet therapy is not all about having a dog in therapy with you, although this would seem to be the most beneficial form of pet therapy for someone in recovery. Some treatment centers offer equine therapy, which can be arranged for you while in recovery.
Pet therapy research relays that equine therapy is extremely effective in treating patients with a wide range of mental health disorders as horses can be patient and non-judgmental. Also, horses are observant and sensitive animals that are quick to give feedback.
Equine therapy dates back to 600 A.D. when horses were used for therapeutic riding in ancient Greek literature. Equine therapy was introduced in Scandinavia after an outbreak of poliomyelitis. In 1960, therapeutic riding was introduced in the U.S. and Canada by the Community Association of Riding of the Disabled (CARD).
Dolphins can also provide a positive experience for someone in recovery. They are social and friendly creatures that are trained to respond to a variety of symptoms, emotions, and people.
Not convinced pet therapy or AAT would work for you?
Numerous animal-assisted therapy research papers reveal that therapy with animals helps reduce pain-induced insomnia.
The presence or interaction with a pet or animal in therapy can help lower blood pressure, reduce the amount of medication you may take, or distract you from feeling chronic pain.
The effects of human-animal interaction involving oxytocin in the brain are so positive for people that pet therapy cannot be dismissed, a researcher noted on PsychCentral.
This is a question that you can answer best. If you have an affinity for animals, you could benefit from pet therapy. Even if you are not an “animal person,” pet therapy might be a good option to add to your recovery treatment plan. Pets and animals give unconditional love and support, lower stress, boost mood, provide an outlet for emotions, and can remind you that you are not alone.
If you are in recovery and looking for alternative options to traditional therapy, The Palm Beach Institute may be able to help find an appropriate source for pet therapy. Pet therapy is best utilized when in combination with traditional therapies, such as cognitive behavior therapy, trauma therapy, family therapy, and others.
Mayo Clinic.(2020, September 15) Pet therapy: Animals as healers. from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/in-depth/pet-therapy/art-20046342
National Geographic. News. (2018, May 1) Therapy Dogs Work Miracles. But Do They Like Their Jobs? Lombardi, L. from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2018/04/animals-dogs-therapy-health-pets/
The Anxiety Treatment Center. Equine Assisted Therapy. from http://anxietytreatmentexperts.com/equine-assisted-therapy/
International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. (2019 August 16) Animal-Assisted Intervention Improves Pain Perception in Polymedicated Geriatric Patients with Chronic Joint Pain: A Clinical Trial. Rodrigo-Claverol, M. et. al. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6721103/
Alliance of Therapy Dogs. (2018, August 1) A Beginner’s Guide To Therapy Dogs And Anxiety. from https://www.therapydogs.com/animal-therapy-dogs/
PsychCentral. (2018, October 8) The Truth About Animal-Assisted Therapy. Uyemura, B. from https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-truth-about-animal-assisted-therapy/