Pet Therapy in Addiction Recovery: A Guide for Beginners

Kelsey Brown
Nov 29, 2018 · 4 min read

Any high-quality drug and alcohol rehab center will use a variety of evidence-based treatment methods to treat clients who are recovering from addiction. Examples may include cognitive behavioral therapy, contingency management, 12-step facilitation therapy, and family behavior therapy, among others. But did you know pet therapy is also a commonly used treatment method for people in addiction recovery?

This lesser-known therapeutic tool has proven itself to be especially beneficial for addiction recovery, although it is used in many other scenarios as well.

What Is Pet Therapy?

Pet therapy is a guided interaction between a person and a trained animal. The primary purpose of pet therapy is to help individuals cope and recover from health problems, such as cancer, mental health disorders, or addiction.

Dogs and cats are most often used for pet therapy, but other animals are also beneficial in a therapeutic setting. The type of animal will vary based on the person’s therapeutic goals or treatment program, but some of the most commonly engaged animals for pet therapy are:

  • Dogs
  • Cats
  • Horses
  • Fish
  • Llamas
  • Dolphins
  • Guinea pigs

Who Needs Pet Therapy?

Pet therapy can be used in a variety of different situations and for several different health problems. Just as other types of specialized treatment options like music therapy, art therapy, or wilderness therapy are helpful for people of all ages, backgrounds, and populations, pet therapy is too.

The types of people that may benefit from pet therapy most include:

  • People with chronic diseases
  • Hospitalized people
  • Individuals with PTSD
  • Residents of nursing homes, sober living homes, or long-term care facilities
  • People completing physical therapy
  • Individuals with mental health problems

What Happens in a Pet Therapy Session?

Although pet therapy sessions will look different in varying situations, the end goal is the same: to improve the client’s physical and mental well-being with animal interaction.

First, the animal is typically brought into a hospital, home, or another type of care facility by a therapist. The therapist then guides the interaction between the animal and the client. For example, in a pet therapy session with a dog, the therapist may start things off by first asking if the client would like to pet the dog. If the client says yes, he or she would be permitted to pet the dog.

Next, the client is invited to ask any questions that he or she wants to. However, if the client prefers, he or she may also just pet and talk to the dog instead. The timeframe for a pet therapy session varies, but many clients find that any amount of time spent with the animal is enjoyable.

Benefits of Pet Therapy in Drug and Alcohol Rehab

Research studies have shown that pet therapy provides several physical and mental benefits for patients in a variety of therapeutic settings. Regarding substance abuse treatment, one study found that the relationship between the client and the therapist was enhanced with the addition of a therapy dog.

Another pilot project focused on adults in drug detox and drug and alcohol rehab. Fifty-six clients (46 males and 10 females) participated in the study. When the dogs were present, 56 percent of the participants interacted spontaneously with the animals and revealed specific personal information that related to violence, loss, self-esteem, family dynamics, and consequences of drug and alcohol abuse.

In addition, when some participants felt like they were rejected by the dogs, or that the dogs did not like them, 19 percent of the participants tended to withdraw socially. In most of these cases, these participants admitted that their reaction to the dogs was similar to their behaviors, thoughts, and interactions with people as well. The therapist then led those participants in re-engaging with the dogs by modifying their behaviors, body language, and vocal signals to better communicate with the dogs.

As is demonstrated in this example, pet therapy provides several opportunities to develop social skills, improve communication, and expand one’s self-awareness. In addition to these benefits, there are also several more physical and mental benefits of pet therapy during alcohol and drug rehab.

Physical Benefits of Pet Therapy in Addiction Recovery

  • Reduces blood pressure
  • Encourages relaxation
  • Relieves pain
  • Releases oxytocin, a hormone that combats depression

Mental Benefits of Pet Therapy in Addiction Recovery

  • Improves mood
  • Encourages communication
  • Reduces feelings of anxiety, depression, loneliness, and isolation
  • Provides comfort
  • Reduces stress
  • Helps clients develop social skills
  • Increases self-esteem

Sometimes pet therapy just provides something exciting and interesting to people in recovery who may be searching for new meaning in life.

Regardless, pet therapy provides many essential benefits to those enrolled in an alcohol and drug rehab program, several of which will carry over into other areas of treatment, such as life skills development, family conflict resolution, and interpersonal communication.

Although pet therapy may not work for all clients, if given the option, a rehab center that offers pet therapy may be a great choice for someone seeking a drug and alcohol rehab program.

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