Pet Therapy in Rehab


More than 84 million American households have a pet.1 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 offers comfort. 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 Animal Assisted Therapy Work?

Equine therapyThere 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.

Equine-assisted therapy has become especially popular in recent decades. Equine and animal therapy are still in the early-stages of research. While many people offer success stories of this type of therapy, more research is needed.2

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 addicted people enter treatment with a predisposal to mistrusting others. The addiction lifestyle is generally filled with weak peer relationships and betrayals that often make these individuals 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.

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.3

Exercise is a great way to benefit you and your pet! Did you know that the Heroes in Recovery 6k Races are dog-friendly? Find a run/walk near you at

What Are the Benefits of Animals During Recovery?

Most notably, animals benefit our mental and emotional needs. 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 pet owners are more likely to survive heart attacks and have lower rates of heart disease overall.4

Happy man with dogsPets also offer support, and for many patients, that’s something they’ve been lacking in their lives during addiction. 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.

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.5 Furthermore, caring for pets often instills a strong sense of self-worth in recovering addicted people who struggle 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.6

Many mental health conditions can affect a person’s capacity to process social cues and engage in conversation with others. Interacting while animals are present is often easier for these individuals, as the animal may help alleviate any stress or anxiety that is linked to social interactions.

Can Animal Therapy Treat Co-Occurring Disorders?

Around 50 percent of people who have severe mental health disorders are also substance abusers.7 Animal companions may ease anxiety and possibly make avoiding relapse a lot easier for many sufferers of co-occurring disorders.

The unconditional love and affection that pets provide can be a real lifesaver for distraught individuals in their time of need. Rates of anxiety and loneliness dropped by 60 percent among 55 participating students after they received canine therapy.8

Pet-Centered Treatment

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:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Trembling
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Excessive sweating
  • Extreme thirst
  • Nightmares
  • Appetite and weight fluctuations

Spending time with a therapy animal can improve well-being and make the withdrawal experience less difficult. Animal companionship can also boost the recovering person’s motivation to heal. In addition, patients can improve their social skills when working with animals. As an added benefit, upwards of 60% of patients felt an improvement in mood after interacting with an animal.9

Some recovering individuals are inspired to get a pet of their own post treatment. By facilitating an ongoing relationship between the animal and the recovering person, resistance from 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.10

The important first step to recovery for any person begins with a phone call. No matter what tools or resources you use on your healing journey, The Oaks is here to help. Our confidential helpline can offer you support and information.


1 The American Pet Products Association. Pet Industry Market Size & Ownership Statistics. 2018.

2 Tartakovsky, M.Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy: Healing Therapy or Just Hype? PsychCentral. 2016.

3 Turner, W.G. The Experiences of Offenders in a Prison Canine Program. Federal Probation. Web. Accessed 15 Jan 2018.

4 O’Connor, A. Owning a Dog Is Linked to Reduced Heart Risk. New York Times. 9 May 2013.

5 Garrity, T., Stallones, L., et. al. Pet Ownership and Attachment as Supportive Factors in the Health of the Elderly. Anthrozoös Vol. 3, Iss. 1, 1989.

6 Miller, T., Cross, C. & Underwood, J. The Use of Therapy Dogs with Adult Substance Abuse Clients. Therapy Dogs International. N.d. Web. Accessed 15 Jan 2018.

7 Substance Abuse and Mental Health. HelpGuide. Web. Accessed 15 Jan 2018.

8 Georgia State University. Animal therapy reduces anxiety, loneliness symptoms in college students. ScienceDaily, 21 October 2014.

9 “Animal Assisted Therapy.” National Fibromyalgia & Chronic Pain Association. Accessed 15 Jan 2018

10 Roan, S. (2008 November 10). “The 30-day Myth.” The Los Angeles Times. Accessed 15 Jan 2018