The furry companions we call family do more than just purr and bark. Pets make a huge impact on the lives of those who live with them. From companionship to life saving abilities, animals are amazing creatures. Throughout the years, service animals have proven themselves to be loyal, useful, and necessary.
The first use of service pets was documented in the 1800’s by Florence Nightingale, who found that animals reduced fear and anxiety in children. Sigmund Freud also believed pets served a higher purpose than companionship, and used to bring his own dog to some of his therapy session to assist patients.
While it’s common place to see a service pet helping a blind person cross the street, or alerting a diabetic that their sugars are low, you may not notice the service pets which exist for emotional assistance. Recently service pets have been used for anxiety disorders, and even addiction recovery.
Animals have an innate sense of human emotion. Cats rub up against you when you’re sad; dogs put their furry little heads in your lap when you’re sad. Your pet knows how you’re feeling maybe before you do. These are the instincts which come in handy during addiction rehabilitation.
Any pet owner can list 100 reasons why they love their pet. Throughout this article, we’re going to list 12 very good reasons why service pets are beneficial to those in recovery. Ready? Here we go.
1. Feeling Responsible for Someone Other than Oneself:
One of the falsehoods of addiction is feeling as though taking the drug hurts nobody but themselves. The truth is, it affects everybody around them. Therapy pets are a wonderful tool to instill a sense of responsibility and self-worth. The animal may not be under the direct care of the patient 24/7, but during the time of interaction, that pet is dependent. Feeling needed and wanted by another life form is a positive force in the life of somebody who has perhaps felt very little of that in some time.
Working with a service pet can also re-instill some of the basic life lessons necessary to care for oneself. Caring for a pet reminds a patient to eat, bathe, and love themselves. Sharing time with an unbiased companion with no look of judgement in their eyes is a freeing experience, which can help reduce feelings of negativity and self-resentment.
2. Reduced Cravings and Related Anxiety:
Drug addiction isn’t a controlled act, despite what many may think. While the first act of imbibing a drug is usually consensual, the following instances are often due to physical need rather than a desire to take the drug. In this sense, cravings and the anxiety they cause are one of the biggest problems for someone challenged with a substance use disorder. The fear of relapsing is a very real one. This makes the use of service pets a great advantage for someone challenged with a substance use disorder.
During a pilot study, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, inmates in a prison were tested with and without therapy pets. The treatment group was given the opportunity to work once a week with a group of 20 dogs while undergoing treatment for drug addiction. The controlled group only received standard addiction treatment with no time with the animals. Inmates who experienced pet therapy reported fewer cravings, reduced anxiety, and fewer symptoms of depression.
3. Feeling Happier and More Social:
Mood is a tricky thing to master when dealing with addiction. The way you feel about yourself, friends, colleagues, and life in general all impact motivations for staying clean or leaning on old crutches. Finding ways to improve your mood can increase chances for a successful recovery. Research suggests that animals can improve moods.
In a study published in the Multidisciplinary Journal of the Interactions of People and Animals, researchers found that animal assisted therapy played a prominent role in the pleasure of patients. By the fourth week of animal assisted therapy, patients were helping others, interacting in a pleasant way, more social than normal, and smiling more. While this study sought to discover the link between animals and psychiatric therapy, there are high odds that the same outcomes would be met in those recovering from addiction.
4. A More Positive Outlook on Recovery:
Recovering from dependency is a long-term commitment. There’s no one cure to addiction, and this means being on board with your own recovery is crucial. It’s not enough to ask a person challenged with a substance use disorder to quit, the individual must want to commit to the process, or it will feel impossible. By interacting with a pet during recovery, patients are more likely to feel passionate about their success.
Research shows that working with animals during recovery increases the overall experience of treatment. During one such experiment, all patients, whether court ordered or self-enrolled, felt more committed and happier about treatment when working with pets in the experimental group vs. the control group.
5. Better Communication Skills:
One of the hardest things to face, aside from addiction itself, is those around you. From friends and family to doctors and counselors, communication is one of the major keys to a successful recovery. It’s difficult to speak up when fear of judgement or rejection exists.
Pets are known for their ability to love unconditionally. It should come as no surprise then that service pets help recovering addicts open up emotionally and express themselves better. In a case study published in the Journal of Addictions Nursing, a group of recovering patients were better able to communicate with their nurses following treatment with service dogs. Not only were patients more vocal and stronger communicators, but they also felt an increased sense of self-worth.
Perhaps the most obvious, but still important advantage to pet therapy is companionship. Addiction can be very lonely, and recovery seems lonelier still, especially if you do not have immediate access to a support structure (i.e. Family, Friends, Mate, or companion) Even surrounded by other recovering patient’s, it’s difficult to trust, and share. Having a therapy pet provides companionship, even in the darkest hours.
Pets sense emotions, but they don’t judge us for them. Even just sitting in silence, knowing a pet is nearby provides comfort. A study, published in the Journal of Orthopsychiatry found that even in the absence of family members, a service pet helped fill patient need for companionship.
7. Smooth Community Integration:
Above, we touched on how service pets help improve social interactions. Another benefit associated with this advantage is reintegrating into society. Following rehabilitation, leaving an in-patient recovery center sometimes leaves patients feeling a little lost. Coming from a world where everybody understood what they’d been through into one where nobody does is hard. Working with a therapy pet can improve emotions associated with these changes and create an overall more successful transition.
Findings from a randomized controlled study found that patients transitioning out of psychiatric care back into society reacted better and integrated more smoothly following rehabilitation with a service animal. Patients who spent time with these pets were more likely to attend work or school and be social when confronted with the option of communicating with another human.
8. Affordable Anti-Stressors:
Oxytocin, a natural chemical released by the brain provides relaxation during stressful situations. For an addict, managing stress is a huge part of being successful in recovery. One way that you can reduce anxiety is by interacting with a pet. According to research connected to service pets and patients suffering from PTSD, scientists found that spending time with pets increased the natural production of oxytocin. This provides an alternative anti-stress therapy to medication, which could decrease chances of a successful recovery.
9. Alternative Pain Management:
A leading cause of addiction in the United States is prescription opioid overuse. Many men and women begin taking pain relievers legally and find it difficult to stop. Once out of rehabilitation and trying to maintain a successful recovery means finding alternative methods of managing pain. Research following the use of service dogs for chronic pain sufferers found that working with a therapy dog significantly reduced pain.
Patients in the study also felt less fatigued, and an elevated sense of mood. All these things work together to create a less threatening atmosphere for patients worrying about relapsing.
10. More Pep for Life:
While there’s no conclusive proof that service pets provide a boost in energy, one study performed by Coakley and Mahoney in 2009 found that patients who underwent pet therapy felt more energetic. The hospitalized adult subjects reported higher levels of energy, better moods, and easier breathing after interacting with the animals.
Feeling tired, weak, and rundown are all triggers, especially for those who were addicted to energy enhancing drugs. Feeling happier, healthier, and more energetic could provide the strength to make it through another day without regression.
11. Reduces Boredom and Keeps You Busy:
A major issue many recovering patient’s face following treatment is keeping their minds from wandering back to the thoughts of using drugs. Interacting with a pet keeps you busy, and forces thoughts to the task at hand. Focusing on the immediate moment, rather than what you could be doing later, helps alleviate some of the stress of a craving. Researchers at the University of New Hampshire write, “When a pet is present, it has certain needs such as needing to be fed and walked. Having a pet can help people who have struggled with substance abuse because it gives them something to focus on other than themselves and gives them a partner to help them get through the process of developing healthier behaviors.”
Having a pet is a lot of work, even if you’re only working with your therapy pet a few hours a day. Walking, petting, feeding and playing with the pet keeps hands and minds busy, and motivated. These relaxing activities also keep you from getting bored and looking for something to do. Just as many turn to food when bored, patient’s turn to their addiction when bored. Staying busy reduces chances of stumbling back into old habits.
12. Improves Motivation:
No one challenged with a substance use disorder can overcome addiction unless he or she wants to. Being motivated is a crucial element to the success of recovery. Working with a therapy pet helps increase this motivation because patients want to get better; to be better for their pet. Taking care of a living creature and receiving unconditional love without judgement in response is an incredible feeling. This promotes self-esteem, which in turn builds a longing to work harder and do better.
It’s easier to feel accepted in the presence of an animal. Thus, working with a service dog provides the boost necessary to make a plan, take that first step and get moving. The rest is just following one foot at a time and asking for help when it’s needed.
Pet Therapy and Alternative Recovery Programs
While working with therapy pets is an excellent way to increase chances of a successful recovery, there are other ways to receive help during treatment. The need for alternative recovery programs stems from a lack of government funded rehabilitation options. For some men and women suffering from addiction, there are no recovery options close to home. This means travelling to find help, or attempting rehabilitation alone.
Fortunately, the dawn of the internet has created a variety of possibilities for addiction recovery that weren’t available a few decades ago. Online counseling from a recovery coach, offers much of the same heightened sense of unbiased communication and comfort that working with pets does. Online addiction counseling works by connecting patients with an online resource for recovery support. These resourceful and experienced counselors can also connect patients with pet therapy options in their community. Working together with a counselor, patients can vent, reach out during moments of weakness, and create lasting bonds. Being online means there is access 24/7 from anywhere with an internet connection.
For those suffering with addiction, it’s important to know you are not alone. More than 20-million Americans struggle with addiction. Once you acknowledge the need for help and reach out, you’re one step closer to recovery. If you don’t have many recovery resources in your town, consider online counseling. It could save a life.