More than 71 million American households have a pet. A deep connection often occurs between a furry friend and his owner. When you’re down on your luck, depressed, or just in a general funk, a loveable pet can often pull you out of it just by curling up next to you. The research behind how animals help promote a positive mood in humans is extensive. While fish, cats, dolphins, and even guinea pigs have been used as therapy pets, the most commonly utilized and researched animals for this form of treatment are horses and dogs.
Emotional, physical, and mental woes may be alleviated with the assistance of animal therapy. For many, their own household pet is a certified therapy animal that has been trained to assist ill and disabled individuals. In addition, many treatment facilities, hospitals, and third-party networks now offer therapy pets, and more insurance carriers are covering these services every day.
Does It Work?
There are certainly many therapy options in the world today. Skills groups, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, and individual counseling have been concrete parts of substance abuse treatment regimens for years. As research into alternative therapies continues, the efficacy of new therapies is tested and proven. For example, hypnosis has its place as a remedy for drawing out repressed memories at the root of traumas to helping people lose weight or quit smoking. In one study, reports of a 77 percent success rate one year after hypnosis treatment show great efficacy.
Animal use in therapy came about in the late 1800s as a way of treating psychiatric disorders. Insurance companies are starting to cover pet therapy services, and for good reason. Equine-assisted therapy specifically boasts great success rates. Self-reported rates of efficacy reach as high as 100 percent in some cases — such as the treatment of juvenile delinquents suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Traditionally, equine-assisted therapy started as a way to help individuals with physical disabilities by training them to ride the horses, but today, the focus is on building relationships with the horses on the ground. Obviously, they are far larger and can be more temperamental than a house pet, like a dog. For this reason, there is a great amount of trust involved in building a relationship with a horse. Many addicts enter treatment with a predisposal to mistrusting others. The addiction lifestyle is generally filled with weak peer relationships and betrayals that often make substance abusers feel like they can’t trust anyone anymore.
Many professionals in the addiction treatment field feel horses are superior for use in animal therapy due to their human-like instincts and reactions. In fact, many feel that people and horses are quite similar and relate to one another easily. The cause and effect of relationships with animals is rather simple; if you are kind and loving to an animal, it will be kind and loving in return. In addition to building trust, working with horses requires self-discipline, an aptitude for problem-solving, and good communication skills. Those who lack these qualities are the perfect candidates for equine-assisted therapy, because it will teach them these skills in a way that is subtle and enjoyable.
Aside from dogs and horses, cats are sometimes used for pet therapy purposes, too. Animal-assisted therapy has even made its way into the prison population in recent years. In Wisconsin, a canine training program showed promise for prison inmates. While the rate at which convicted criminals become repeat offenders in America holds steady at around 60 percent, none of the 68 inmates who were dog trainers in the Wisconsin program had re-entered prison at the time of a follow-up survey.
What Are the Benefits?
Most notably, the benefits of pet therapy are on the mental and emotional end of the treatment spectrum. Emotional attachment to other living beings is important, and this is strongly conveyed in research on pets and their owners. Data shows that pet ownership makes for better overall well-being and levels of personal happiness. In fact, pets may even boost your chance at a longer life. One study notes that nine out of 10 patients who were pet owners survived heart attacks and were still alive one year later, compared to only seven in 10 among non-pet owners.
Pets also offer support, and for many patients, that’s something they’ve been lacking in their lives as addicts. They may have made mistakes that caused their family and friends to turn away from them. Some substance abusers have voluntarily removed themselves from interactions with loved ones due to the self-loathing and guilt that they
feel. And these individuals need love and compassion just as much as anyone else does.
The primary criticism with regard to pet therapy is how lasting the effects are. Very little data exists from formal research on this, so it’s difficult to draw conclusions on long-term results. Regardless, pet therapy is growing in popularity among medical treatment professionals.
Interaction with animals has been proven to reduce stress and levels of depression. In one study of bereaved pet owners, strong attachment to a pet was linked to lower levels of depression whenever few confidants were present. Furthermore, learning to care for pets often instills a strong sense of self-worth in recovering addicts who may be struggling with issues of low self-esteem.
This form of treatment may also be beneficial to the therapist-patient relationship. In a 12-week study of 56 substance abusers, 64 percent “seemed to achieve the primary goal of actively participating in an event that provided some enjoyment or nurturing for them,” and 56 percent of those who participated in the study divulged information about their past and their substance abuse habits to therapists when therapy dogs were present.
Many substance abusers are uncomfortable around other people who don’t abuse drugs or alcohol. Others have difficulty engaging in any sort of social interaction due to a timid personality or mental illness. Many mental health disorders can affect a person’s capacity to process social cues and engage in conversation with others, such as borderline personality disorder and anxiety-based disorders. Interacting with animals present is often easier for these individuals, as the animal may help to alleviate stress or anxiety that is linked to social interactions.
Can Animal Therapy Treat Co-Occurring Disorders?
There is potential for pet therapy as a means of treating mental illness, too. While only around 20 percent of people with depression have utilized pet therapy, 54 percent of them report finding it “extremely” or “quite a bit” helpful. Similar approaches geared toward mitigating mental health disorders in substance abusers may make avoiding relapse a lot easier for many sufferers of co-occurring disorders. Around 50 percent of people who have severe mental health disorders are also substance abusers.
While some recovering individuals may not necessarily have full-blown mental health disorders, they might suffer with feelings of failure and loneliness when they have hit rock bottom and decide to seek help. The unconditional love and affection that pets provide can be a real lifesaver for distraught addicts in their time of need. Rates of anxiety and loneliness dropped by 60 percent among 55 participating students after they received canine therapy.
Pet therapy can start on day one of your substance abuse treatment experience. You may find yourself struggling with a myriad of symptoms during detox, including but not limited to:
- Excessive sweating
- Extreme thirst
- Appetite and weight fluctuations
Spending time with a therapy dog or cat can improve well-being and make the withdrawal experience less difficult. In one study of patients recovering from joint-replacement surgery, participants who were treated with dog therapy used 50 percent less pain medication.
Animal-assisted therapy can boost the recovering addict’s motivation to repair his life and become a functioning member of his community again. In addition, patients can improve their social skills when working with animals. The premise of animal therapy is rooted in a historical belief that human beings once had to rely on animal signals as a means of survival. Based on the biophilia hypothesis, it is believed that a calm animal can elicit a relaxed mood in a person. One study notes that more than 60 percent of participants reported feeling “calm, pleasant, and cheerful” following time spent with a therapy dog.
Four-legged friends often like to engage in physical activity — something recovering substance abusers are frequently in dire need of. Among women in a smoking cessation program, those who visited the gym three times a week were found to be twice as likely to quit smoking. In a separate study of adolescents and teenagers, those who engaged in exercise every day were half as likely to smoke and 40 percent less likely to be marijuana users.
Some recovering addicts are inspired to get a pet of their own post treatment. By facilitating an ongoing relationship between the animal and the addict, resistance toward relapse may grow stronger. Since 40 to 60 percent of all substance abusers who complete treatment end up relapsing, this added boost can be beneficial.
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 Miller, T., Cross, C. & Underwood, J. (n.d.). “The Use of Therapy Dogs with Adult Substance Abuse Clients.” Therapy Dogs International. Accessed April 10, 2015.
 “Animal Therapy Reduces Anxiety, Loneliness Symptoms in College Students.” (2014 October 21). Georgia State University News. Accessed April 10, 2015.
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