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How Pets Help Treat Addiction

June 10, 2009 by Emily Battaglia 

The positive influence of domestic animals on human recovery and continued emotional well-being is documented, and includes recovery from addiction. Many people develop strong emotional bonds with their pets, and for some, this relationship can provide the strength to heal and recover from substance abuse.

Research has shown that animals have the power to soothe, console, and uplift their human companions. Conditions such as high blood pressure and depression have shown improvement with the introduction of an animal companion. Because stress-management techniques, physical health education, and learning to be accountable and responsible are essential components of any substance abuse recovery program, animals fit naturally into the process of recovery. Pet owners who have good relationships with their pets consistently report lower stress levels, and dog owners usually get more exercise.

In light of the power of pets, some residential substance abuse treatment centers have begun developing treatment programs that allow pet owners to bring their pets with them. One treatment center in California allows all kinds of pets including cats, dogs, fish, and reptiles. The presence of these pets at the treatment facility promotes affection and warmth, healing, and a culture of responsibility and accountability.

Addiction treatment involving pets stresses two aspects of recovery: building nurturing relationships and reassuming adult responsibility and autonomy. Pets assist with both of these areas, providing unconditional love and affection, always responding positively to their human companion’s demonstrations of affection, encouraging playfulness and laughter, and providing the recovering individual with an outlet for activity, emotion, and interest.

Pets also place basic demands on their humans because they are dependent on humans for their care. Living up to these responsibilities can help a recovering addict who has been stripped of autonomy or trustworthiness by his own actions begin rebuilding his feelings of self-worth.

When treatment programs allow pets, the recovering individual has a little piece of home that they can take into therapy with them. This appears to lessen the chances that individuals in a residential treatment program will leave the program before they are really ready.

Currently, residential treatment centers that allow pets are still rare because centers must obtain special licensing and provide additional staff training in order to operate these programs. However, as the benefits of these programs become more well-known, it is likely that more treatment centers will choose this format.

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