Anyone who arrives home after a stressful day to a dog’s ecstatic leaps or a cat’s steady, calming purr understands the benefits of animal companionship. Research shows that the human-animal bond has health rewards, lowering agitated behavior in people with Alzheimer’s and reducing anxiety in cancer patients.
But what about animal-assisted therapy for people dealing with substance abuse?
In an emerging trend, some substance abuse treatment centers allow inpatients to bring along household pets, incorporating furry friends into the care plan. Here are eight advantages pets can bring to people in recovery.
1. Reducing initial negative emotions
Loneliness, guilt and anxiety often plague people in treatment for addiction, particularly in the early phases. The familiar presence of a beloved pet may help soothe feelings of being overwhelmed and isolated.
2. Releasing good chemicals naturally
Caring for, feeding and playing with a pet increases mood-elevating brain chemicals like dopamine and serotonin. A 2015 study by Azabu University in Japan showed a link between gazing into a dog’s eyes and an increase in oxytocin, the hormone associated with lower blood pressure and feelings of love. Healthy stimulation of the brain’s pleasure center is a positive step toward recovery from addiction.
3. Decreasing sadness and hostility
A 2016 Washington State University study showed that adolescent boys in a substance abuse treatment program who played with shelter dogs every week experienced less hostility and sadness. The weekly one-hour sessions consisted of running or walking with the dogs, tossing toys, petting or brushing, sitting or lying with the dogs, and giving them treats.
After eight weeks, researchers evaluated positive and negative emotion scores of the boys who played with the dogs and another group of boys who instead hiked, played video games or shot hoops. The decrease in negative emotions in the group that played with dogs is promising, said study author Lindsay Ellsworth.
“Animals could be a huge asset in a recovery program,” she said.
4. Aiding in relaxation
Anxiety eases and blood pressure declines when people interact with pets. Pets also help people cope with stressful situations, an important tool in recovery. In a 2001 study of 48 people treated for high blood pressure with medication, half were assigned to adopt a dog or cat. After six months, all had lower blood pressure, but the pet adoption group showed significantly lower blood pressure in response to stressful situations.
5. Rewarding accountability
“Learning life skills and a sense of responsibility is important in recovery,” said Tom Hill, senior advisor on addiction and recovery at the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, an office of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in Rockville, Md. “Being responsible for another living being besides yourself could be considered skill building for people in treatment.”
6. Engendering love and trust
Bonding with another living being and giving and getting unconditional love may seem foreign to people whose addiction has led to isolation and self-blame. The potential role of pets in building the ability to love and count on others is worth more study, Hill said.
7. Encouraging healthy habits
The mood-boosting benefits of exercise are important in someone’s return to physical and emotional health. A dog’s regular demand for a walk or a cat’s insistence on chasing a string might make it easier to get moving.
8. Reducing stress levels
Elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol were associated with higher substance abuse treatment dropout rates in a 2009 study by the University of Maryland, College Park. Holding and caressing a pet has been shown to decrease cortisol. No data yet links higher treatment completion rates with pets, but enlisting pets to lower the stress response may help calm and reassure someone who is considering walking out.
If pets alone could conquer addiction, we’d all show up with kittens, puppies, birds and bunnies for troubled friends or relatives. It’s not that simple, of course, but structured, disciplined treatment programs that combine the psychological comfort of pets may prove to be a significant frontier in addiction therapy.
—Treacy Colbert for Morningside Recovery