If you’re already a pet owner or have grown up around animals, you probably already have a gut feel for the answer.
Over the past several decades, multiple studies have been done on the viability of using animal companions as a supplementary intervention for different mental health issues, including addiction, now more accurately known as substance use disorder (SUD).
As you may have expected, these dozens of studies point to animal-assisted therapy (AAT) having several key benefits for people recovering from drug and alcohol misuse.
A number of drug rehabs in Dallas already offer some kind of AAT or access to specialists that do.
How do pets help SUD recovery?
While having a pet is no substitute for psychotherapy and medication-assisted therapy, for many recovering individuals it can be a key factor in ensuring their long-term recovery.
Different reviews of SUD and animal-assisted therapy shows that people who have completed a residential rehab program or are currently undergoing regular outpatient treatment can improve their recovery outcomes through pet ownership, volunteering at animal shelters, or through special animal-assisted therapy programs.
Here are just some of the ways an animal companion might help you or a loved one beat SUD:
1.) They offer nonjudgmental social contact
There is still a strong stigma surrounding drug and alcohol misuse which leads people with SUD to feel isolated.
This is a key reason why many rehab programs include group therapy and workshops and why most encourage regular meetups with support groups.
However, support groups are not the only places where you can find someone willing to look past your illness.
Animal companions can offer companionship and even unconditional love just as well or better than some humans.
Some people recovering from SUD may even claim that their pets understand them better than other people do.
Their steadfast companionship can prevent feelings of isolation, which, in turn, can strengthen one’s commitment to recovery.
2.) They help rebuild empathy
A Hungarian study of animal-assisted therapy in addiction treatment found a number of important benefits for the human participants.
Crucially, the study found that animal companions had a way of improving their humans’ empathy.
Empathy, the ability to understand other people’s emotions, is incredibly important for SUD recovery as it can decide how well a person excels in their personal and professional lives.
It’s a foundation to most strong relationships and can be a critical factor in determining how well a recovering individual interacts with others.
Animal companions, of course, communicate differently from other humans.
However, the fact that they’re different engages our ability to see things from their point of view.
The study suggests that this active use of empathy has lasting benefits for recovering individuals’ interactions with other humans.
3.) Pets can introduce productive structure in your life
Post-rehab recovery strategies often revolve around building and maintaining productive routines, not too much unlike what one might experience in a residential rehab program.
Routines allow you to conserve mental energy while doing things that benefit your mental and physical health.
Of course, while it gets easier with time, maintaining a routine is much more easily said than done.
For this reason, external motivation can be especially important for many people in the early part of recovery.
Fortunately, this is something a pet can provide.
Because pets have daily needs, having one can encourage proactive behavior, which can be beneficial for anyone recovering from SUD.
Helpful behaviors like journaling, studying, prepping healthy meals, and meditation could be anchored around a pet’s feeding, grooming, and play times, further encouraging you to take better care of your own physical and mental health.
4.) They can effectively reduce anxiety
Anxiety often co-occurs with SUD as either a cause or a direct result of substance misuse.
Additionally, people recovering from SUD will often experience anxiety symptoms early in recovery.
The presence of animal companions, particularly dogs, cats, and horses, but also many other animals, have been linked in different studies to a decrease in anxiety symptoms.
This reduction in anxiety can be a key factor in improving one’s mood and quality of life, which, in turn, may reduce the risk of maladaptive coping behavior and relapses as well.
5.) They can encourage you to exercise
Exercise is another activity vital to SUD recovery that not enough people do in sufficient quantities.
Dogs and other animals that require physical activity can be extremely convincing when it comes to getting their humans to exercise as well.
If one lives by themselves, having a companion that likes to go out on walks can be critical in encouraging regular exercise and other healthy activities.
Should you get a pet to help your recovery?
Unfortunately, not everyone will necessarily benefit from animal-assisted therapy, particularly if they still have problems taking care of their own needs.
However, for those that have already made some headway in their mental health recovery, having a pet can be a good way to supplement conventional treatments like cognitive-behavioral therapy.
If you’re interested in animal-assisted therapy for you or a loved one, make sure to consult a qualified mental health expert first.
Having an animal companion is a serious responsibility, so consulting your therapist or a certified AAT specialist can help you make a more informed decision.