Anyone who has ever owned a pet knows how wonderful it feels to come home and be greeted by a wagging tail or gentle purrs. They love us, our animals, no matter what we look like, how much money we earn, or whether we suffer from a behavioral health issue. If we feed them and love them back, we have a friend for life. That sense of unconditional love we receive from our furry friends not only makes us feel good, it is also medicinal. There are multiple physical and emotional health benefits we enjoy by being a pet owner, and those benefits can be a powerful source of strength in addiction recovery.
Bringing Your Pet to Rehab
In an attempt to help break down the barriers to getting help for an alcohol or drug addiction, some rehabs are now addressing the pet barrier to treatment. Individuals with an addiction may point to their dog as the reason why they just can’t commit to a treatment program. They worry about who would care of the animal in their absence. But even when a family member steps up to take care of Fido, the addict still balks. Why? The real issue is that the individual cannot bear the idea of leaving their trusted companion for a month or more. While in active addiction, that pet may have been his or her only friend left in the world, as human relationships often take a beating. They need their pet with them, period.
Pet friendly rehabs recognize that clients are more committed to recovery if they are permitted to bring their beloved pet with them. The client will be more relaxed, will stay longer, and will be in a more positive frame of mind with their pet alongside them. Here are some of the benefits of bringing a pet to rehab:
- Even though clients are surrounded by people during treatment, these are not their dear friends, but are virtual strangers brought together with one common goal, overcoming addiction. Rehab can feel lonely, being away from family and friends for an extended period. Bringing one’s pet to rehab fills that void and offers a sense of familiar companionship from home.
- Going into treatment can cause feelings of uncertainty and anxiety. It is scary at first, going through detox and adjusting to the rehab environment. Having one’s furry friend along can provide reassuring feelings. Cuddling up with one’s pet promotes a sense of safety and security while winding through the recovery process.
- Early recovery teaches individuals how to be accountable to their recovery, their therapist, their group, and their sponsor. After a period of only caring about the substance of abuse, obsessing over it, obtaining it, using it, recovering from its effects, rehab teaches clients to become accountable to others. This is also true of having a pet at rehab, as the client will be entirely accountable for its wellbeing.
How Your Pet Helps in Recovery
Few people are spared the physical depletion that addiction causes to the body. Many are admitted into treatment with nutritional deficiencies, underweight, overweight, and physically weak. Addiction took center stage, pushing fitness and health out to the fringes. Rebuilding physical and emotional wellness is an essential aspect of recovery. As the body regains strength and the brain is repaired, mood, perspective, and productivity all improve as a result.
So how does a pet help with this process of restoring health? There is ample evidence available showing how pets can benefit us, both physically and emotionally:
Physical Benefits of Having a Pet in Addiction Recovery
A recent study out of Sweden, using an enormous sample size of over 3 million people, has demonstrated that dog ownership can help reduce cardiovascular disease. It seems that in addition to the positive impact on overall physical health from exercise that accompanies taking care of a dog with regular walks, other factors related to dog ownership also had a positive effect on heart health, too. Alleviating feelings of loneliness, depression, and stress—all linked to cardiovascular disease—are other aspects of dog ownership that reduce heart disease. In addiction recovery, all of these benefits are assets that offset some of the common adverse psychosocial effects in early recovery. So, in addition to getting regular exercise and improving stamina, concentration, sleep quality, and overall fitness, a loving dog can also trigger increased levels of oxytocin and serotonin, which lift mood.
Emotional Benefits of Having a Pet in Addiction Recovery
A new meta-analysis on the effects of pet ownership on mental health was published in Medical News Today, relaying the powerful effect that pets have on our emotional fitness. Dual diagnosis, or the co-occurring substance use and mental health disorders, can be particularly difficult to overcome, as the symptoms related to the mental health disorder can trigger substance abuse. The research showed that for people struggling with mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD, which often coexist with addiction, pets offer them feelings of stability, safety, and purpose. In recovery, pets can have a soothing effect on the individual, and that helps reduce stress and cortisol levels. Stress is a common trigger for relapse, so having a pet can be seen as a tool in helping prevent potential relapse.
Other Benefits of Pet Ownership in Recovery
The psychological support one receives from their pet can have a positive impact on addiction recovery in a variety of ways. Getting outside to walk the dog improves the possibility for social interaction, which helps battle loneliness. In addition, knowing that a pet relies on you for its survival causes the recovering individual to have a sense of purpose in their life. Also, pets keep people on their schedule, and that translates to a healthy daily routine of rising early in order to feed the animal. All of the many benefits of having a pet along for the recovery journal make the case for their role in promoting a positive recovery outcome.
About the Author
John T. Kahal is the founder and C.E.O. of Solutions 4 Recovery, a comprehensive addiction and dual diagnosis treatment program located in South Orange County, California. After his own successful experience with the recovery process and journey, Kahal decided to create a unique program that was individualized for each client’s specific needs. Kahal’s passion to share his own positive experience with others, while being a living example of the freedom found in recovery, is what motivates him to guide clients toward their own stable, long-term recovery.