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Role of Animals in Addiction Prevention and Recovery

Anyone who has ever owned a pet or even played with a rambunctious puppy knows there is something magical, even healing, about spending time with animals. Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) for substance abuse can help people find hope and healing during their intense recovery process.

The healing impact of animals is a medicinal tool used for centuries. Basking in the love of a dog or caring for a beautiful horse provides incredible emotional and psychological benefits. If you are undergoing substance use disorder treatment, you may find incorporating drug rehab animal therapy and the warmth and love of an animal can greatly aid your recovery journey.

What Is AAT?

While owning a pet or having a service animal can significantly benefit a recovering addict, this type of relationship isn’t considered AAT. AAT for substance use disorders refers to therapeutic or recreational activities that harness the healing power of spending time with animals. AAT is not a stand-alone treatment — it’s used in conjunction with other substance use programs.

Best practices for Animal-Assisted Therapy for Substance Abuse

AAT should not replace evidence-based treatment programs, including detox and counseling. True AAT requires a certified professional with specialized training. This ensures both the patient’s and the animal’s safety and makes it a more effective form of therapy. Also, AAT should be goal-directed and tied to a patient’s treatment progress.

How AAT Helps Addicts Recover

Recovering addicts face many physical, mental and emotional obstacles as they undergo treatment. Addiction changes the ways your brain functions, causing drugs and alcohol to artificially stimulate neurotransmitters and receptors.

AAT provides a safe and natural way to reestablish the natural neurochemical pathways in the brain. When you play with a dog or ride a horse, this interaction stimulates pleasure receptors in the brain, releasing powerful mood-enhancing chemicals. This allows you to develop good habits and routines to help reduce your dependence on drugs or alcohol.

During these therapy sessions, pets and recovering addicts interact for benefits, including:

  • Reduces stress, anxiety and depression
  • Releases feelings of calm and happiness
  • Provides companionship
  • Teaches you to connect with others
  • Helps you open up and address hidden feelings
  • Encourages physical activity
  • Teaches you to interact with others in a healthy way
  • Builds trust

Animals Used in Drug Rehab Animal Therapy

There are numerous types of animals involved in AAT, and each has their place. Some popular options include:

  • Dogs
  • Horses
  • Cats
  • Guinea pigs
  • Rabbits
  • Pigs
  • Birds
  • Rats
  • Llamas
  • Alpacas

Dogs are the most common animals used in AAT. However, equine therapy, which allows patients to interact with horses, is growing in popularity when combined with substance abuse treatment.

Which Animal Is the Most Effective for AAT?

There is no research comparing the effectiveness of different pets and recovering addicts. So, there’s no proof that one animal provides more benefits than another. For that reason, most believe all therapy animals are equally effective.

However, incorporating different animals into your drug rehab process brings certain advantages. Here are the benefits of some of the most popular animal choices:

  • Equine therapy: This form of treatment involves engaging in mutually beneficial activities involving a horse — handling, grooming, walking and riding. Horses observe human emotions and respond to feelings such as sadness, anxiety, happiness and anger. Patients, therefore, get immediate feedback about their state from the horse as they learn to confront and address negative feelings and develop healthy coping strategies.
  • Canine-assisted therapy: Dogs are, by nature, gentle, interactive and highly observant. Trained therapy dogs are ideal for addiction treatment as patients get to play with, feed, groom and pet these animals. As they interact with the dogs, patients can confront their past drug use. The dog’s presence relieves stress and helps patients gain self-esteem and learn communications skills.
  • Feline-facilitated therapy: Cats are companion animals. Their presence during therapy sessions and in drug rehab centers can reduce feelings of anger or depression and help patients develop social skills. Having a cat around can also help recovering addicts feel emotionally supported as they undergo intense addiction treatment.

Does Any Animal Make a Good Therapist?

Drug rehab animal therapy is so effective that many people believe these animals make the best therapists. However, there is a difference between a therapy animal and a pet.

Trained therapy animals, such as the dogs used in AAT, are highly trained, social, calm and friendly. They’re also well-groomed, clean and undergo regular health checks. The best therapy animals can adapt their behaviors to any given environment. Plus, they allow patients to experience the joy of having a dog without the strain of caring for an animal full-time.

Adopting a pet has many advantages, but it’s not the same. They provide around the clock companionship, which helps recovering addicts keep feelings of loneliness, depression or stress at bay. However, having a pet is different than the organized care provided by an AAT professional and their animal.

Individualized and Compassionate Care at Gateway

At Gateway, we are continually evolving to ensure our patients get the individualized care they need to successfully recover from drug or alcohol addiction. We use evidence-based practices to develop customized treatment plans for each of our patients. Our holistic approach ensures you receive the best possible outcomes.

If you would like to learn more about our innovative drug and alcohol treatment programs, contact us today. Your recovery and healing await.

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