Addiction therapy is constantly evolving to include new and innovative approaches to recovery. Pet therapy, also known as animal-assisted therapy, is a relatively new form of treatment designed to build on pre-existing human-animal bonds. Interactions with animals have proven to help with many physical and mental issues. Therapy animals can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression while simultaneously boosting self-esteem and improving social interactions.
Therapy animals can be used to achieve numerous goals in recovery. These may include:
- Improving self-esteem
- Increasing verbal communication
- Developing social skills
- Improving interactions with others
- Increasing motivation to exercise
- Decreasing feelings of loneliness or isolation
- Reducing boredom
- Reducing anxiety
- Improving mood
- Teaching empathy and nurturing skills
Therapy Animals in Addiction Treatment
Successful addiction treatment will always address more than just the addiction itself. The influence of peers and environments, the existence of mental health disorders, and numerous other factors can contribute to the development of addiction. In order to provide the most effective treatment, it is important to address these influences to reduce the likelihood of relapse. Therapy animals can play a vital role by reducing stress, improving mood, and helping clients distract themselves from negative thoughts and feelings.
Therapy animals can be incredibly beneficial in treatment, but there are multiple things to consider before incorporating them.
- Owning a pet versus therapy animals: While interacting with therapy animals is beneficial, some may want to take it a step further and add a pet to their family. It is important to consider whether or not it is wise to inherit the additional responsibilities that come with owning an animal. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by responsibilities, choosing to work with therapy animals allows a person to enjoy the fun parts of pet owning without many of the demanding aspects. Designated therapy animals tend to be more successful in treatment as they encourage emotional and physical growth without adding additional stressors that can inhibit a person’s progress.
- Type of therapy animal: Therapy animals can come in any shape, size, or breed. While dogs tend to be the most popular, others include cats, birds, hamsters, and rabbits. There are other types of therapy animals, such as horses, that are becoming increasingly popular in therapeutic environments. Even fish can be considered therapy animals if they help clients to feel relaxed and calm. Therapy animals can be anything that promotes a calm, friendly, relaxed environment.
- Trained therapy animals: One might also consider working with animals that are trained and certified for animal therapy. While being around animals can be therapeutic in general, those who are trained in therapy can ensure safety. These animals tend to be equipped for any situation that may arise, reacting appropriately to situations that may not be easy to deal with under normal circumstances. This reduces the risk of injury or stress due to a negative interaction and allows clients to enjoy the benefits of therapy without worry.
Therapy animals provide a quick and easy way to reduce stress. Animals can act as great listeners for those in treatment, allowing people to express feelings and experiences without feeling judged. This can further help relieve stress and release pent up emotions.
Depending on the type of treatment facility, animal therapy may be an option during recovery. Some rehab programs include alternative treatment options as a means of addressing individual needs throughout the recovery process. If it is not a part of the treatment program, there are stand-alone programs that a person may engage with to experience the benefits of animal therapy. If this is not an option, volunteer work is another avenue to explore. Many animal shelters and rescues are in need of volunteers to help care for animals in their facility. Volunteering in these organizations is beneficial to both the person and the animals at the facilities. While animals at shelters may not be screened in the same way animals certified through therapy programs, interactions here can still produce many positive benefits.