Animals enhance our lives in so many ways. They are loyal companions who show unconditional love and empathy, who ask only for love and affection in return for all that they do for us. Animal lovers are well aware of the countless benefits of having a pet, including the uplifting effects they have on emotional well-being.
Research studies indicate that spending as little as 30 minutes a week with an animal can positively affect brain chemistry. Owning a pet can change the body’s stress responses and lower blood pressure. It is also associated with lower cholesterol levels, increased activity levels and lower rates of obesity.
In addition to the physical benefits, the positive impact of pet ownership on mental health is well-known. The bond that forms between animals and human beings can reduce anxiety, lower agitation and improve mood. Simply spending time with a pet or service animal is not considered pet therapy. However, animals are being used to treat a variety of conditions, and have been throughout history.
History of Animal-Assisted Therapy
The use of animals for healing dates back to Ancient Greece. Equine therapy was used by physicians to treat physical and mental issues in their patients.
In the 1800’s, Florence Nightingale was working as a nurse with children, and in psychiatric wards. She discovered that interaction with an animal reduced anxiety levels in her patients. This ground-breaking healer commented about the possibility of animal-assisted therapy: “A small pet is an excellent companion for the sick, for long, chronic cases especially”.
Sigmund Freud’s own dog, Jofi, was one of the earliest therapy animals. After noticing the calming influence that his presence had on the doctor himself, he began to observe the effects of the dog on his patients.
Freud found that Jofi seemed to relax them, and provided a sense of safety and reassurance. He also noted that patients would speak more openly and freely during psychotherapy sessions when Jofi was in the room, particularly about deeply painful issues. This was especially true for children and adolescents.
A few decades later, in the 1940s, the American Red Cross utilized dogs and farm animals with World War II veterans suffering from flashbacks. Interacting with the animals, and helping to take care of them, seemed to speed recovery and aid in managing traumatic, painful memories.
These early discoveries by medical pioneers led researchers to continue to explore the role of human-animal bonding in the treatment of addiction and mental health disorders. Their findings confirm that this relationship can be extremely beneficial in the therapeutic process.
Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) involves working with a practitioner who has the appropriate training and certification to develop a treatment plan with specific therapeutic goals, strategies and outcome measures. Therapeutic experiences include walking, brushing, petting, and caring for the animal, as well as the experience of trying to achieve a given task.
AAT has grown in popularity in recent years. It is used to treat PTSD, anxiety, depression and a variety of mental health concerns. It has also become more commonplace in substance use disorder treatment.
Therapy takes place in many settings, including outpatient and residential rehab facilities, private therapy offices, farms, hospitals, long-term care facilities, and schools, and is provided by various organizations. Sessions can be conducted individually, or with a group, but they must be led by a trained professional.
Depending on the needs of the patient, a specific type of animal is chosen. Dogs and horses are the most common, but dolphins, cats, birds, rabbits, guinea pigs and other farm animals are being used as well. Therapy animals are carefully selected, trained, and socialized.
Why Use Animal-Assisted Therapy for Addiction Recovery?
The bond that develops between the recovering addict and the therapy animal strengthens the therapeutic alliance between the patient and the provider, which is a good indicator of positive outcomes. This also improves compliance with the therapeutic process, increases the probability of completion of addiction treatment, and reduces the risk of relapse.
Including animal therapy in rehab has been linked to many physical and mental health improvements. Physically, it lowers stress hormone levels, regulates breathing, stabilizes cortisol and epinephrine levels, lowers blood pressure and heart rate, and increases the levels of beta-endorphin, a hormone that reduces pain.
Improved fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, range of motion, strength and endurance are also linked to this type of therapy.
Emotional benefits include reduction in feelings of anger, hostility, tension, and anxiety, improved social interactions, a greater sense of responsibility, improvement in personal grooming, and increased feelings of empowerment, patience, trust, and self-esteem. It also releases oxytocin, a hormone associated with bonding and affection.
Research findings have shown that it aids in overcoming emotional dysregulation, a reaction by an individual to a situation that is out of proportion, and that is associated with mental health conditions. This makes AAT very effective in treating co-occurring disorders like PTSD and substance abuse.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), about two-thirds of people in the United States who have a substance use disorder (SUD), have a mental illness as well. A history of trauma or abuse is reported by a large portion of individuals struggling with addiction.
For survivors of abuse and trauma, animal-assisted therapy provides a safe environment. Physical contact while interacting with a therapy animal can help to build trust, and overcome emotional and physical distance.
AAT may also reduce anxiety, sadness, feelings of loneliness and insecurity. As one part of a comprehensive treatment plan that also includes supervised detox, counselling, therapy, and an aftercare plan, research shows that it may aid in the recovery process and help to prevent a relapse.
Dogs are the most commonly used animals for substance abuse treatment. They are gentle, calm, social, interactive, highly observant, adaptable, and can be trained. This makes them an ideal choice. Dog-assisted activities include feeding, talking, grooming, walking, training and playing with the animal.
Canine-assisted addiction treatment is effective because, as noted by Freud himself, it helps clients be more forthcoming about their history of alcohol and drug abuse and its consequences.
Therapy dogs can help recovering addicts build trust, establish boundaries, gain self-esteem, and develop problem solving and communication skills. They help individuals struggling with addiction to relate to others, which will aid them in accessing new support networks both during therapy ,and after its completion.
The nature of the AAT sessions allows the therapist to observe the interactions between the patient and the animal, and to aid in identifying triggers and unhealthy coping mechanisms. Better strategies may then be taught, and alternatives to alcohol and drug use as a response to stressors can be provided.
Dog therapy can mimic the mood enhancing effects of drugs and alcohol, in a healthy way. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that produces a reaction similar to ingesting cocaine, is released during therapy sessions, as are endorphins and serotonin.
This provides the patient with an alternative means of experiencing these feelings, and allows them to make better choices. This retraining helps to reduce cravings for, and dependence on, drugs and alcohol, and it increases the likelihood of achieving and maintaining sobriety.
The healing power of horses has been well known for centuries. Today, they are second only to dogs as a choice for addiction treatment, and they are particularly popular with young people.
Horses are being used to treat mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, as well as issues with substance abuse, with great success. Part of the reason for this is that interacting and bonding with a large animal, while being in nature, can build confidence, trust, patience, mindfulness and self-esteem.
Horses are perceptive, and they respond to feelings such as happiness, anger, sadness and nervousness. They provide immediate feedback during therapy sessions, creating an awareness of these underlying emotions in the patient. This allows for the recovering addict to better understand the triggers that caused these, and to develop strategies to manage them without abusing drugs or alcohol.
This form of treatment provides an opportunity to build attachments with a partner with whom the recovering addict feels emotionally safe. A relationship is formed in which the addict can share without fear of criticism or judgement.
As in canine-assisted therapy, interacting with horses can facilitate conversations with the therapist about their history of substance abuse, and the personal and social issues that led to the addiction.
Research findings show that equine therapy improves self-esteem, use of coping strategies and self-efficacy, the belief in one’s own ability to successfully manage a challenging situation or complete a task, in individuals with a mental illness. As conditions like PTSD and other mental illnesses often co-occur with substance abuse, this makes this type of therapy particularly effective in the treatment of complex diagnoses.
Equine-assisted therapy must be conducted by a certified, trained practitioner, and is more than a horseback riding lesson. It is experiential therapy designed to help retrain the recovering addict’s understanding of the causes of the addiction, to teach new strategies, and to reduce dependence on drugs and alcohol.
Mutually beneficial activities include handling, riding, grooming, walking, trotting, and training the horse, under the care of a therapist. Improved therapeutic alliance between the patient and health care professional is another positive outcome that will aid in recovery.
Dolphins have always had a mystique about them that makes the seem almost magical. They are not household pets like dogs, or farmyard companions like horses, they live in the water, and most individuals have no experience interacting with them. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, people have a fascination with these animals.
Recreational activities that allow participants to swim with a dolphin have existed for decades. The anecdotal reports given by many describe the experience as life-changing, and researchers began to explore this bond further. The relationship between dolphins and humans quickly expanded from swim partners, to therapist and patient.
Though the use of dolphins in therapy is relatively new, it is growing in popularity. Originally used by physical therapists, it is now also being used to treat mental health conditions and substance use disorders (SUD).
As with other animal-assisted therapy, the provider is able to observe the recovering addict with the animal. A great deal can be learned about a patient’s emotions, and ability to manage those emotions, and as Freud noted with Jofi, the presence of an animal facilitates this process more effectively than a typical therapy session.
In addition to working with the dolphins, a unique experience in itself, doing so in a wild, unpredictable setting is what leads patients to describe this particular type of animal-assisted therapy as transformative.
Patients with a mental illness or SUD can learn increased self-awareness, develop strategies for self-soothing, and improve their ability to tolerate stressors. They also have a bonding experience that is both powerful and life-affirming.
Dolphin-assisted therapy is controversial for many reasons. One issue is that there is not enough research to support its efficacy as a long-term intervention. The cost is also prohibitively high, as getting to a rehab centre will involve travel expenses. This precludes the possibility for repeating sessions, as is common with other types of animal therapy, a factor that reduces its effectiveness.
Another concern with this treatment approach is the ethical concern many people have about using wild animals that have been captured. These highly intelligent creatures are held in captivity and used in a therapy that isn’t fully supported by research. The companies who charge outrageous fees for their services may be the only ones who benefit in the long-run.
Animal-Assisted Addiction Therapy May Not Be For Everyone
For animal lovers, it is easy to see why animals have become so popular in addiction treatment. Including them in sessions is calming and soothing, and can help patients feel more comfortable being involved with treatment.
However, not everyone likes animals, and not every recovering person may benefit from animal-assisted therapy. Those who may prefer not to participate in AAT include people with a history of hurting animals, a fear of, or past trauma associated with animals, a lack of interest in animals, cultural or religious concerns, and/or allergies to fur or dander.
Consulting with a therapist can help determine if AAT should be included in the treatment plan.
Animal-Assisted Addiction Therapy – One Part of the Recovery Process
Animal-assisted therapy aids with recovery in a very unique way. The bond that develops between the animal and the patient facilitates the therapeutic process, and increases the probability of completion of treatment.
The physical and emotional benefits of animal therapy are numerous, from releasing hormones like oxycotin, which produces feelings of bonding and affection, to helping reduce stress and lower blood pressure. They have also been thoroughly researched.
Treatment for substance abuse and other mental health disorders should involve a comprehensive plan, developed with a medical practitioner, of which AAT may be one part.
For those who are comfortable with animals, having a non-judgemental companion with them on the way to recovery can greatly improve the efficacy of addiction treatment and lead to long-term sobriety.
Does Animal-Assisted Therapy Work? – The Pet-Human Bond | Psychology Today
Psychology Today, Posted June 23, 2018
Common Comorbidities with Substance Use Disorders
Institute on Drug Addiction (NIDA), Last Updated February 2018
Animal-Assisted Therapy for Substance Use Disorders | Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation
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Does Dolphin Therapy Work?
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Animal-Assisted Therapy in the Treatment of Substance Dependence
Martin C. Wesley, Neresa B. Minatrea & Joshua C. Watson
Published Online April 28, 2015
Fido and Freud Meet: Integrating Animal-Assisted Interventions with Counselling Theory
Laura Bruneau and Amy Johnson
Presented at American Counselling Association Conference, March 27, 2014
Substance Abuse Inpatient’s of Animal-Assisted Therapy
Nicolene Coetzee, Jarrod T. Beukes & Ingrid Lynch
Published Online May, 2014
Picture Credit: Animal-Assisted Healing – Hazelton Betty Ford Foundation