By Patti Richards
Any dog lover knows how a pair of big brown eyes and a wagging tail can immediately boost your mood. And there’s nothing like a happy bark and puppy kisses waiting to greet you after a long, hard day. Pets are forever faithful and grateful just to be in your presence. Knowing there’s someone at home waiting just to be loved makes a person feel needed like nothing else can.
But being at home to love and adore a family isn’t the only place where these four-legged friends find purpose. Animals of every size are changing the face of addiction treatment for many who struggle with substance use.
Pet Therapy Essentials
Pet therapy is a broad term that includes animal-assisted activities that help people recover from or cope with health problems, such as heart issues and cancer, according to the Mayo Clinic. Animal assistants may also make general visits to patients in hospitals and nursing homes.1
As pets play a larger role in our lives overall, emotional support animals are becoming more popular as a way to help people deal with mental health conditions. For example, a veteran with PTSD or someone struggling with anxiety or depression may benefit from the company of a dog, cat or other small pet. An emotional support pet can accompany its owner into any establishment as long as it’s registered as a service animal from an approved organization.2
Of course, pet therapy provides more than just emotional support. It also has a proven track record of helping people who are recovering from or undergoing treatment for an illness enjoy longer, healthier lives. Rebecca Johnson, head of the Research Center for Human/Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, says recent studies reveal spending time with animals increases oxytocin, a naturally occurring, feel-good hormone. “Oxytocin makes us feel happy and trusting,” Johnson tells NPR, and this may help explain the bond humans develop with their pets. She goes on to say that oxytocin also helps us stay ready to heal and grow new cells, creating an overall healthier environment within the body.3
Pet Therapy in Addiction Recovery
Some addiction treatment centers also employ the power of pets to increase recovery success — from providing puppies for new residents to having an on-site dog for patients to bond with and enjoy. Here are just a few ways pets aid the treatment process:
- Teaching responsibility: Pets are living, breathing beings that need care and love. Having the responsibility to provide for and take care of something other than oneself helps those in recovery think about something other than their own struggles.
- Building confidence and self-worth: Caring for a pet increases a person’s self-confidence in a job well-done. Pets give gratitude for even the smallest gesture of love and care, which can inspire even more selfless acts from the person in recovery.
- Learning emotional intelligence: Pets respond to emotions, and being around animals can help people in recovery learn to control responses and adjust to the pet’s emotional needs rather then their own.
- A healthy emotional outlet: Animals provide a healthy emotional outlet for stress, anxiety and depression.4
At Talbott Recovery, we recognize the comfort animals can bring to the recovery process. That’s why we added Breezy to the treatment team in December 2017.
Every patient who sees Breezy lights up immediately. As Talbott’s first therapy dog, she has a sixth sense for when someone has an emotional need and helps residents feel less anxious and more present in every aspect of treatment.
Breezy’s presence brings an atmosphere of calm to difficult conversations — a benefit that aids everyone involved in the recovery process. Recently, she helped a young adult patient make an important breakthrough during a family session. Breezy has been included in every family session since then and takes part in individual therapy sessions and grief and trauma groups as well.
Finding Help for Drug and Alcohol Addiction
Whether you love dogs, cats, horses or dolphins, having an animal involved in the treatment process can support your journey to a drug-free life. If you or a loved one struggles with substance use, we — and Breezy — are here to help. Call our helpline 24 hours a day to speak to an admissions coordinator about available treatment options.
1 “Therapy dogs can be a patient’s best friend.” Mayo Clinic, August 19, 2016.
2 “Emotional Support Animal.” USA Service Dog Registration, Accessed March 14, 2018.
3 Rovner, Julie. “Pet Therapy: How Animals And Humans Heal Each Other.” NPR, March 5, 2012.
4 Stanger, Louise, EdD, LCSW, CDWF, CIP, and Roger Porter. “You’ve Got a Friend: Care Animals & Emotional Sobriety.” HuffPost, December 1, 2017.