For emotional health, mental well-being, and addiction recovery, being around animals is extremely beneficial. Something called animal-assisted therapy is often part of addiction treatment, improving outcomes.
A pet-friendly rehab may also be a good option for many people who need the support of their pets as they go through a transition in their life from active alcohol or drug addiction to recovery.
Below, we break down what you should know about animal-assisted therapy and the role animals can play in recovery. We also discuss the comparison between an emotional support animal vs. a service animal.
What Is Pet Therapy?
Pet therapy is a broad term including animal-assisted therapy and other activities with animal assistance. In the growing field of animal-assisted therapy, dogs and other animals help people recover or cope with mental and physical diseases and disorders.
In hospitals, for example, animal-assisted therapy is increasingly being used to help improve patients’ moods and sense of optimism.
Specifically, animal-assisted therapy can help people receiving cancer treatment, people with dementia, and individuals with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Using animal-assisted therapy doesn’t just help the patient. Friends and family members with them during animal visits also say they feel better.
The Healing Power of Animals
In nonmedical settings, pet therapy is used in community programs and universities to help people with stress, anxiety, and mental health disorders.
Emotional support dogs are growing as part of the recovery process for many conditions. There’s a lot of exciting research into the use of comfort animals and emotional support dogs right now.
Animal-Assisted Therapy for Substance Abuse
When you start a drug or alcohol detox program, you’re likely going to participate in a number of different forms of therapy. For example, you may participate in individual and group behavioral therapy 12-step programs and do holistic therapies like yoga, art therapy, and acupuncture.
Depending on the treatment center and your recovery plan, you might also participate in animal-assisted therapy. Dogs and horses are most commonly part of animal-assisted therapy.
Studies show that visiting with a dog can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, help you feel happier and calmer, and even reduce pain.
One specific example of animal-assisted therapy is called equine-assisted learning or EAL.
- In equine therapy, you learn to manage your own emotional and behavioral responses by understanding the horse’s responses.
- When you bond with a horse, you can also learn a sense of responsibility as you care for another living thing.
- You can build a sense of trust with the animal, and because horses can be skittish, you have to make sure you manage your emotions to keep the horse calm.
Canine-assisted therapy includes therapy dogs.
- In canine-assisted therapy, studies find clinicians and mental health professionals get more insight into their patients.
- Some facilities will bring in dogs from shelters, but other facilities allow patients to bring their dog or another type of animal with them.
- When you’re in treatment and caring for your dog, you have a sense of structure, responsibility, and purpose among the therapeutic benefits.
- Having animals around can be a mood-lifter for everyone and give patients something to look forward to.
Emotional Support Animal vs. Service Animal
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service animal is a dog trained individually to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities, including mental disabilities. Under the ADA, the tasks the dog does have to be directly related to the disability of the person.
The dog might be trained to take a specific action when needed. For example, someone with diabetes may have a dog who lets him know when is his blood sugar is high or low. Another example of a service animal is one trained to detect the onset of a seizure in someone with epilepsy. Service dogs can then help the person stay safe during the seizure.
However, an emotional support animal, also known as a therapy animal, or a comfort or companion animal, is not a service animal under the ADA. These animals aren’t trained to perform a particular task or service. Some state and local governments allow emotional support animals to go into public places. The laws of reasonable accommodation depending on where you’re going and where you live.
The ADA also makes a distinction between an emotional support animal and a psychiatric service animal. There are dogs trained to sense an anxiety attack is impending. Then, the trained dog would take a particular action to help the person somehow. If an animal only provides comfort without taking action, then that isn’t a service animal under the ADA.
An animal doesn’t have to be professionally trained to qualify as a service animal. Someone can train the dog themselves under the definition of service animals.
What Are the Benefits of a Pet-Friendly Rehab Facility?
If you or a loved one is going to addiction treatment or may need a rehab program, a pet-friendly program can be an excellent option. A pet-friendly rehab center will usually require that an animal that will stay with a patient meet certain size and behavioral criteria.
If the pet can come with the patient, benefits of being at a pet-friendly rehab during the treatment process can include:
- The person in treatment won’t have the distraction and worry of not caring for their pet while they’re away.
- Someone in rehab may feel more settled and comfortable when their pet is with them. When someone is comfortable, they will be more receptive to everything they do as part of their treatment plan and program.
- Pets provide nonjudgmental, unconditional love and acceptance. When you’re in treatment for an addiction to drugs or alcohol, these are often the things you need most at that moment. You don’t have to consider that your pet could be upset with you or judge you for past decisions as you might with other relationships. You can think about their present love and companionship.
- If you’re taking care of your pet while in treatment, it promotes accountability. You’re putting your own needs and wants aside because you have something else to care for, even when it’s not always convenient.
- Symptoms like low mood and depression can occur during withdrawal and in the early days of treatment. Having your pet there can help with these symptoms.
- Having your pet with you in a rehab center is a good conversation starter. You can better get to know other people staying at the treatment center and your treatment providers.
- There are physical health benefits of having a pet. For example, interacting with pets lowers cortisol, a stress hormone. Interacting with a pet can raise your levels of serotonin and dopamine, which are happy neurotransmitters. Having your pet can also lower your blood pressure.
- A lot of what you have to learn during treatment and once you leave is how to have a healthy routine. Healthy routines are part of what helps maintain long-term recovery—having a pet in treatment allows you to start creating those routines.