The Healing Power of Animals: Animals Helping Addicts Recover

If you own a pet, you know how wonderful they can be! They are ever accepting, always willing to give love and affection and are excited to be with you — just because you’re you. It turns out the experts agree about the benefits of pet ownership. Having a pet can have a tremendous positive impact on your health and well-being — and this is particularly true for recovering addicts.

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The idea of animals helping addicts recover, animals helping with depression and animals helping disabled people isn’t far-fetched at all. Over 150 years ago, dogs were described as ‘man’s best friend.’  Sir Winston Churchill is quoted as saying, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”  Whether it’s owning a pet dog or cat or participating in formal equine-assisted therapy, our furry, feathered and scaled friends are indeed healing partners in recovery.

Is Animal Contact Important for Addicts?

While formal animal-based therapy can be helpful for addicts, it’s not necessary to reap the many benefits that animals provide to people in recovery. Just being around animals, such as spending time at home with pets or during volunteer work, provides many benefits to people recovering from anxiety, depression and addiction.

So don’t worry about finding a formal pet-therapy program. Walk your dog, hug your cat or say hi to your pet tarantula. No matter what kind of animal you own, you’ll find that pets can help you when you leave rehab and continue your recovery at home.


Animals Are Good Medicine

Sometimes the best doctors have paws and fur. Animals are good medicine for what ails you. All types of animals provide many health benefits, including:

  • Companionship: Animals are an antidote for loneliness. On days when you’re feeling blue, you’ll always be around someone who loves you when you are around animals.
  • Exercise: Most animals need exercise of some sort, even if it’s just cleaning their cage or tank. Animals help us get off the couch and moving.
  • Routines: Animals thrive on routines, as do people. Many people in recovery need to learn the benefits of keeping a simple, healthy daily routine. Animals can teach us the importance of that routine.
  • Investing in life: When you own an animal, you’re interested in something other than your own problems. While introspection and self-reflection are critical parts of recovery, taking an interest in something outside of yourself is also very important.
  • Making friends: Owning an animal can help you make new friends. Other people at the dog park, people you meet walking their dogs along the street or other people at the barn where you take riding lessons are all possible friends. When you share a common interest around animals, you can make friends easily.
  • Stress relief: Animals can help relieve stress and tension. Holding a soft, furry animal like a dog, cat, rabbit or guinea pig can lower blood pressure, heart rate and tension. Interacting with bigger animals can also relieve stress and tension.


A History of Animals Helping People

Animals have been part of human history since ancient times. Egyptians prized their monkeys, cats and dogs so much that they were often entombed with them. Other cultures may value different animals, but the bond between people and animals has healed and helped humans for centuries.

According to the American Humane Society, animal-assisted therapy began as early as the 1700s, when doctors began using dogs with psychiatric patients as part of their therapy. In 1945, the American Humane Society recommended dogs for servicemen returning from World War II who were having difficulty with war memories — what we today would call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The birth of the modern animal-assisted therapy movement is attributed to child psychiatrist Dr. Boris Levinson, who brought his pet dog, Jingles, into therapy sessions to help children he was treating.

Since then, animal-assisted therapy has grown by leaps, bounds, hops and trots worldwide. The Delta Society (now merged with Pet Partners) spearheads over 11,000 registered “pet partner” teams worldwide that bring joy and happiness to people of all ages in hospitals and nursing homes. Hippotherapy, a form of equine-assisted physical and mental therapy, uses horses as partners to help children and adults with addictions, physical disabilities and mental disabilities.

Even something as simple as having a small pet such as a fish, turtle, snake or rat waiting for you at home when you return from your stay in recovery can be helpful. Studies have shown that pets improve healing outcomes no matter what the illness is. Pets offer unconditional love, social support and opportunities for bonding.

Animals Helping Depression

Depression is a complex disease involving both biochemical reactions in the brain and people’s reactions to life circumstances. Many people find themselves depressed for short periods of time. Losing a job, the death of a loved one or another situation can potentially trigger depression in certain people.

Although depression can result from isolation and loneliness, people who are depressed often isolate themselves. They may stay at home instead of going out with friends, feeling too sad or tired to interact with other people. That’s where animals play such an important role in helping people with depression.

Companion animals such as dogs need daily care. Dogs must be fed, exercised and groomed on a regular schedule. Having a regular schedule and routine is an important component of healing from mental illnesses, including depression.

But companion animals of all types provide another important ingredient for helping people with depression. They make people feel less lonely. An animal in the house is another living being, someone with whom to share meals, companionship and snuggles. Animals don’t care how you’re dressed or what you do for a living. They just love you for who you are, and they are happy to see you each day. Studies have shown that having a pet decreases isolation and loneliness among people with depression.


Animals may also trigger chemical changes in the brain that combat depression. A new study from the University of Missouri-Columbia shows that petting a dog releases beneficial chemicals in the brain including serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin. Many medications that treat depression target serotonin receptors. Oxytocin is the “bonding hormone” that helps people bond with one another.

However, the hormonal balance doesn’t just change with increases in certain hormones. When you pet your dog, the stress hormone, cortisol, decreases, according to the same study. That means good hormones go up, and stress-related hormones go down. Petting your dog or another animal, may actually change your brain chemistry to make you feel better.

A separate study tested people’s reactions to their own dog, a friendly but unknown dog and a robotic dog. Petting any dog decreased blood pressure. Petting your own dog, however, was the only thing that increased serotonin levels. So owning a dog may be very good for people with depression, anxiety and other behavioral disorders, like addiction.

Best of all, the researchers equate the effects of petting a dog to eating chocolate. It’s like all the benefits without the calories!


Animals Helping Disabled People

You’re probably familiar with guide dogs helping blind people navigate streets and supermarkets, but did you know that there are hearing-aid dogs, dogs to help people with disabilities, seizure-sniffing dogs and more?

The list of animals helping disabled people has grown from the original picture of the noble German shepherd or Labrador retriever in a harness helping a blind person cross the street. Today, there are service dogs of all shapes and sizes. Chihuahuas can sense seizures, heart problems and low blood sugar in some people. Other dogs are trained to pull wheelchairs for severely disabled people, open the refrigerator door, turn on the lights or television, and provide more service and independence for people with disabilities of all types.

Disabilities can be invisible as well as visible. People with PTSD benefit from companion animals, as do people with severe panic attacks and phobias. The National Center for People with Disabilities states that while there isn’t enough research on the use of therapy dogs for people with PTSD, certain observations support the idea that dogs and other therapy animals are good for people with PTSD and other disabilities.

The benefits of owning a dog for people with PTSD include:

  • Connections and bonding.
  • Feeling loved, wanted and needed.
  • Reducing stress.
  • Providing laughter and fun.
  • Helping people get much-needed exercise.
  • Calming effects in anxiety inducing situations.

Animals Helping Addicts Recover

There are many ways animals can help you in recovery. If you love animals, you’ll be glad to know your family pet has a place in your recovery program alongside sponsors, friends and therapists.


Caring for or interacting with animals during your recovery can help you:

    • Laugh: Laughter is the best medicine. Recovery work can be demanding and draining. When you’re around animals, however, you’re almost guaranteed to laugh — and your pet may laugh with you. Scientists say that dogs, rats and monkeys are, along with humans, the only animals that can actually laugh. However, horses, cats, fish, hamsters, lizards, guinea pigs and all types of animals do funny things. Laughter is healing, and being around animals means you’ll smile more, laugh frequently and enjoy all the positive benefits that go along with humor.


    • Think about someone else: Most people think about themselves a lot more than they think about others, and addicts are no exception. Yet when you own a pet, you have to think about someone other than yourself. That animal depends on you for food, water, shelter, veterinary care and affection. Owning and caring for a pet helps you expand your circle of care, build empathy, look outside of yourself and think about someone else.
    • Exercise: No matter how small or simple the pet, they do take some work. Cages have to be cleaned. Dogs must be walked. Cats need playtime. Horses need exercise. Your physical recovery includes time for rest, recreation and exercise, and pets can help you meet all three goals. A daily walk with your dog, a ride on your horse or other playtime with a pet can give you some much needed exercise.
    • Become more responsible: Addicts often struggle to meet and keep promises, both to themselves and others. Pets help their owners develop a sense of responsibility. When another life depends on you and demands nothing else in return besides affection and care, you begin to strengthen your abilities to care for others, including the people in your life.
    • Develop accountability: Another area that many addicts struggle with is accountability. Being accountable is a skill you can learn. You’ll be accountable to your sponsor and perhaps your therapist during recovery. Your pet can also become an accountability partner. Your dog will hold you accountable for a daily walk. Your cat will make sure you’re accountable for feeding her. Pets love schedules and routine, which helps both you and your pet. It’s a win-win.
    • Receive unconditional love: Having a hard day? Your pet is waiting to love you. There’s something magical about the unconditional love pets give us. You can be having the worst day ever, and your dog is still happy to see you, or your cat wants to curl up in your lap. Pets teach us how to love ourselves even when we feel the most unlovable. For addicts in recovery, the unconditional love pets give can help them learn how to both give and receive love from others — and how to love themselves.


Don’t Own a Pet? You Can Still Benefit

You can still benefit from a connection with animals even if you don’t own a. Here are a few ways you can still get some quality time with your favorite animals while aiding your personal recovery:

  • Volunteer at a shelter: Nationwide, millions of dogs and cats wait for their forever homes at public and private animal shelters. These shelters need people to volunteer their time and talents. Volunteer work at shelters ranges from cleaning cages and feeding animals to helping with fundraising, marketing and promotions. Shelters need help socializing animals that are up for adoption, assessing their temperament and helping them overcome painful pasts. If you love animals but can’t own one, volunteering your services at an animal shelter can lift your spirits and give you plenty of time around animals while contributing something positive to society.
  • Volunteer at a rescue: Rescues differ from shelters in that rescued animals may or may not be placed up for adoption. Some horse rescues, for example, care for unwanted, abused and injured horses. These horses cannot be ridden again but still need care, grooming and attention. If you love horses, dogs or cats, such a rescue may give you plenty of bonding time with special animals without the expense of owning one. Look online for local rescues and contact them to see if they accept volunteers. Some require a training or orientation program to assess your skills, especially if you’re new to working with that particular species. However, most provide training of some sort.
  • Learn to ride horses: Horseback riding is a wonderful sport that offers exercise, time in nature and bonding with horses. You can take a trail ride just to get outside and enjoy riding. Lessons provide a structured hobby or sport that gives you time with horses as well as new skills. There are horseback riding stables nationwide that offer English or Western riding lessons for beginners. Group lessons are less expensive than private lessons and also give you the added benefit of enjoying time with others who share a similar hobby.
  • Make a career out of it: If your recovery plan includes learning skills for a new career, then why not make animals your career? While most people think of becoming a veterinarian when they think about careers with animals, there are many other opportunities to work with animals of all kinds. Some jobs with animals include veterinary assistants, dog groomers, dog trainers, dog walkers, kennel workers and more.


Recovery Can Include Pets and Animals

At 12 Keys, we know that recovery isn’t a one-size-fits-all process. Our counselors will work with you to create a plan that meets your needs and helps you find your pathway to recovery.

12 Keys offers you a comfortable, homelike setting in which to recover. We have a low ratio of clients to counselors, which means you won’t get lost in a sea of people staying with us. We’ll get to know you as an individual, and there’s always someone available to talk to if you need us.

Through an integrated, holistic program of 12 Step Recovery work, individual and group therapy and treatment for any underlying disorders like past trauma, we can help you get free from drugs and alcohol and learn how to live life sober.

We understand the importance of getting in touch with nature during your recovery, so we organize horseback riding outings, which give you a chance to be with horses and be outside in the fresh air with your new friends while you’re working on your program of recovery. 12 Keys offers time for rest and recreation as well as therapy during recovery. Everything works together to help your body, mind and spirit heal from the effects of addiction.


Our counselors and staff are recovered addicts themselves, so they know what you’re going through and can answer any questions, concerns or worries you have about your stay with us. If you feel you’re ready to begin a program of recovery, contact us today. We can help you any time, day or night, seven days a week. We’ve helped many people recover from drugs, alcohol and mental illness, and we can help you, too.

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