How do Pets make a Difference in Addiction Recovery?
Updated: Feb 7, 2022
See how simple pet therapy can increase the chances of a successful addiction recovery.
From easing distress in the early stages of alcohol or drug rehab through animal assisted therapy programs, to being a solid support for those who have entered addiction recovery, animals have a lot to offer those struggling from addiction. Through all stages of treatment and recovery, pet therapy is becoming more and more common and for good reason.
Benefits of owning a Pet in Addiction Recovery
After attending an addiction treatment center and achieving sobriety, addiction recovery requires long-term maintenance and relapse prevention strategies. You will need as much support as possible, and pets offer benefits unique to the human-animal relationship.
Pets provide unconditional love. Pets love unconditionally and are always there for you, ready to receive your care and attention. Pets never criticize or judge you and this unconditional acceptance can help those in addiction recovery rebuild their self-esteem. It does not matter what mistakes you make during the day, they will be there to happily greet you when you get home. Pets provide a level of social support that makes you feel needed, wanted, and loved. Humans can also provide unconditional love, but sometimes judgements slip, and often in families struggling with addiction, this unconditional love spills over into enabling behavior which is not helpful for anyone. Pets cannot enable your addiction, but can love you in spite of it.
Pets help you learn about yourself. Animals, especially dogs and horses, exhibit total emotional honesty. They cannot hide their feelings and will show signs of fear, anger, happiness and relaxation. People can learn and benefit from experiencing this emotional honesty. After years of numbing emotions through drug and alcohol abuse, recognizing and expressing emotions is a skill that has to be relearned. Animals can also reflect the emotions shown by the person handling them. If you are fearful and anxious around a horse, the horse will also act fearful and anxious. This mirroring can help people recognize their emotional state and learn to relax.
Pets help you build relationships with other people. Entering addiction recovery almost always means letting go of old relationships and building new ones. People can easily form bonds with pets, often more easily than starting new relationships with people. Pets are great listeners. You can talk to them about anything, and even practice difficult or nerve-racking conversations with them. Having a pet can get you out of the house to meet other pet owners at the dog park or pet store, and can give you a topic for starting a conversation with someone new. While pets are great companions, in addiction recovery forming and nurturing healthy and supportive relationships with other people is imperative. Pets can help you break the ice in your quest for new sober friendships.
Dog owners exercise more. Research shows dog owners exercise more often, and exercise is an important aspect of addiction recovery. Your dog can be great motivation to get out for a walk and reap all the physical and mental health benefits of daily exercise. Even if you are not going for a run with your dog every day, pets often get you outside in the fresh air and sunlight for at least a few minutes, and this alone can help improve your mood.
Pets help reduce stress. Finding healthy ways to manage stress is an important aspect of preventing relapse, as stress is a major relapse trigger. Playing with and petting your fury friend can help lower oxytocin levels in the brain, which in turn helps you feel more relaxed and less stressed. The rhythmic stroking of an animal is calming, and pet therapy has also been shown to help keep blood pressure levels lower.
Pets make you smile and ward off loneliness. Animals are always doing cute things that will make you smile and encourage you to become more playful. Just the act of smiling improves mood and boosts the production of feel-good hormones such as serotonin and dopamine. Their playful presence can also help you overcome loneliness — which is important if you want to stay sober in the long run.
Pets encourage responsibility. Pets are an added financial and emotional responsibility, which is something you should seriously consider before adopting one and bringing it home. When you are ready however, having a pet can help you re-establish your feelings of self-worth and competence. Caring for another living thing will help you see outside yourself and your own needs. A pet’s livelihood depends on you and your good choices. Their reliance on you can help build feelings of trustworthiness as you become a responsible pet owner. With that being said not everyone in addiction recovery will be ready or able to take on the responsibility of owning a pet. This does not mean you cannot experience the benefit that animals can bring to your life. There are many ways to get some pet therapy without having to bring one home.
Other Ways to Experience the Benefits of Animals in your Addiction Recovery
By simply spending time with animals you can get some of the same benefits of pet ownership. One of the best ways to do this is volunteer at a local animal shelter.
By volunteering, you not only get to reap the benefits of experiencing animals’ playfulness and unconditional acceptance, but you can also feel good about supporting an organization in your community. You will meet new people and also learn how to manage the responsibility of being a volunteer — others will be relying on you to show up when you say you are going to. Helping others is great for your recovery and will give you a sense of purpose. Volunteering at an animal shelter can also be a great way to transition to pet ownership when you are ready.
Engaging with friends’ pets, or even seeking out specialized animal assisted therapy, such as equestrian therapy where you work with horses and their owners, are other ways you can bring animals and their love and healing into your life and addiction recovery.