The answer is YES!
According to a 2017 national survey of individuals recovering from addictions by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA), pet therapy is valuable as a pathway to recovery. In Saskatchewan, 68.4% of survey respondents identified their relationship with animals or pets as an important support in recovery, and 39.5% said their relationship with animals was important to maintaining their recovery.
The CCSA’s survey is just the latest in a growing number of positive-result studies on the benefit of animal-assisted therapy in the treatment of substance abuse, and addiction recovery.
Animal-assisted therapy or AAT is a therapeutic approach that incorporates animals as a form of treatment. It’s used to enhance and complement the benefits of traditional, evidence-based therapy by helping to decrease patient stress and anxiety and increase emotional connectedness and the rapport between patient and therapist.
The practice of animal therapy can include a wide variety of well-trained and socialized animals including cats, rabbits, Guinea pigs, birds, miniature pigs, llamas, dolphins, and most commonly, dogs (canine-assisted therapy) and horses (equine-assisted therapy). Animal therapy sessions should be performed by therapists certified in AAT and licensed to handle the species of animal involved in the treatment.
Although considered a relatively new treatment method, animal-assisted therapy has been in practice since the 1800s when Florence Nightingale noted the positive effects animals had on the sick, injured and disabled.
Today, animal-assisted therapy is used to help treat a broad range of emotional and mental health issues, and AAT programs can be found in a variety of settings from hospitals and mental health facilities, to prisons and schools, nursing homes, and addiction treatment centres.
The benefits of animal-assisted therapy are widely researched, and the focus on AAT in addiction treatment and recovery has become a popular study for scientists as more and more positive patient results are found.
Here are some of the ways animal-assisted therapy can make a positive impact on the treatment of substance abuse, and increase the odds of addiction recovery.
1. Creates positive emotions and improves mood – If the popularity of animal videos on social media is any indication of the happiness animals can bring people, every mental health and addiction facility should have an animal-assisted therapy program. For individuals that love animals, just the sight of a pet can lift their spirits and improve their mood. Domestic animals like dogs that have a naturally outgoing and affectionate disposition, can’t help but foster a positive attitude in people that becomes infectious.
2. Decreases fear and eases anxiety – There is strong evidence that shows that human and animal interaction can help lower epinephrine and norepinephrine hormone levels reducing feelings of fear, anxiety and stress. Spending time with animals during the recovery process calms the mind and creates a sense of safety and security that is necessary for effective addiction counseling and treatment. Anxiety and stress are leading causes of patient relapse.
3. Nurtures positive interpersonal interactions and helps develop trust – In addition to decreasing the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine, interaction with animals increases oxytocin, the love hormone. Oxytocin regulates social interaction and plays a significant role in human bonding. It’s key to the development of trust, and an antidote to depression. The inclusion of therapy animals to traditional treatment programs improves the quality of the relationship and interaction between a patient and therapist, increasing their likelihood of completing the program and a successful recovery after treatment.
4. Builds confidence and self-esteem – Caring for an animal that is dependent can be an amazing confidence-boosting experience for recovering addiction patients. Learning to nurture and take care of another living being creates a sense of responsibility, and a belief in one’s self and abilities. Having a purpose and developing confidence makes the road to recovery easier.
5. Reduces feelings of loneliness and co-dependency – Addiction is a very lonely disease. You lose relationships that leave you physically alone, and you feel emotionally alone, that no one understands you. The recovery process can also be very lonely. Animal companionship helps to reduce that loneliness. An animal’s love is unconditional, and they express their love freely. Having an animal around can also make you less reliant on others and less likely to continue unhealthy co-dependent relationships.
6. Encourages physical activity – Physical inactivity and sedentary behaviour are major threats to the health and wellness of all individuals, but this especially true for those in addiction recovery. Inactivity and physical isolation are a recipe for relapse. As the old sayings goes “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” Owning a dog increases physical activity – dogs need walks; and reduces the potential for physical isolation. An increase in physical activity also produces a healthier body and improves mental health and mood.
Animal-assisted therapy is not intended to replace traditional addiction therapy. Addiction treatment should include medically-supervised detox, counseling, addiction therapy, and aftercare support. Animal therapy is also not for all patients. Those who are uncomfortable with animals, have an animal-related phobia or who are allergic, are not viable candidates.
For more information about animal-assisted therapy programs in Ontario visit ementalheath.ca.
If you or a loved one needs addiction treatment, call us at The Farm in Stouffville, 1-877-353-2777. Find freedom from addiction and reclaim your life.