How Animal-Assisted Therapy Is a Great Tool for Addiction Recovery
If you have ever been in a room with a roomful of puppies or held a purring cat on your lap, you likely understand the healing power of animals. They offer an unconditional level of acceptance and love that is difficult to find anywhere else. This judgment-free acceptance is likely to spark some level of interaction on the part of most people, making them excellent partners in a variety of therapeutic programs. This healing power of animals is well documented and has been used for centuries to provide comfort during times of stress. Notable health care professionals, from Florence Nightingale to Sigmund Freud, were proponents of using animals in therapy based on their ability to reduce anxiety levels and ease depression symptoms in their patients.
Animal therapy certification programs began in earnest during the 1980s. Today, you can find animals used in therapeutic programs in hospitals, school settings, in judicial courts, and in recovery programs. Including animals in many types of psychological therapy can be extremely beneficial because animals help people feel more relaxed by providing a source of unconditional acceptance and safety. This emotional benefit is evident on a physical level, with a notable reduction in blood pressure levels.
Understanding the Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapies
Animal-assisted therapies can provide incredible emotional and psychological benefits. In a therapy setting, an animal can help a patient feel calmer and more secure. This will help a patient who is withdrawn or unable to communicate begin to enter into the conversation so they can get the most benefit from their sessions.
During substance use recovery treatment, the comfort that a cat or dog offers to the patient can give them the confidence to overcome embarrassment or shame about their experience and be more likely to engage in one-on-one and group therapy sessions. The stress relief that being around animals provides can also help to avoid triggers.
In each instance, the core belief is that animals can enhance recovery by providing needed emotional support. For people who respond to animals, having an animal in the room can make a high-stress situation much easier to handle. Working with animals in connection with a therapy program can help those who have experienced trauma or those who are not yet capable of verbalizing their emotions gain confidence and provide them with a silent confidant. Exploring the various avenues of animal-assisted therapies can provide unique opportunities for supporting the recovery process, resulting in improved positive outcomes and an increase in long-term recovery.
Types of Animal-Assisted Therapies
There are two primary ways that animals take part in therapeutic work.
1. Pet therapy uses pets trained specifically to interact with people in such a way as to provide comfort. These pets are highly trained before beginning a specific program. The pet must be very social and friendly. Volunteers will bring their pets into schools, courtrooms, or hospitals to comfort people dealing with high-stress situations. The joy that being around an animal brings to people has an equally important benefit on their physical body. Reducing emotional stress can also reduce cortisol levels and increase dopamine and serotonin levels in the body. Companion animals such as cats and dogs are excellent candidates for pet therapy.
2. Animal-assisted therapy relies on counselors or social workers who incorporate the animal into their existing therapy models. This can be either in a private setting or a group setting. Animal-assisted therapy programs can use many animals, from small companion pets to rats, guinea pigs, and larger animals such as alpacas. The two most common choices are horses and dogs.
Equine-assisted therapy can involve care for a horse’s physical needs such as grooming, feeding, and exercise, as well as riding a horse. Using horses in therapy has many benefits, including insight into a person’s ability to form and maintain interpersonal relationships. Horses provide immediate feedback as they observe a person’s emotional state. A horse can sense fear, stress, and other emotions in people, and it is necessary to manage your emotions and behavior to develop a bond with them. Working with horses can help patients become more aware of nonverbal cues and learn the importance of building trust in relationships.
Canine-assisted therapy can take the form of either pet therapy or animal-assisted therapy. Dogs are naturally extremely observant and eager for interaction. The gentle nature of most dogs makes them excellent candidates for therapy partners. Working with dogs can improve communication skills and the ability to problem-solve while the patient works on teaching the dog commands. Canine-assisted therapy can also increase motivation and positivity as the patient sees increasing levels of success. Working with a dog requires focus and the ability to build relationships; both of these are invaluable tools.
Animal Therapy in Addiction Recovery Treatment
More than ever, therapeutic work in recovery programs includes the use of dogs, cats, and horses, as well as other two- and four-legged animals. This can take many forms and incorporate dogs, cats, and rabbits, as well as pigs, horses, and llamas. Programs vary from those that have dogs or cats present during therapy sessions to patients who work with animal shelters to recovery programs that make animal husbandry a central component of their substance use recovery program.
There are different types of animal-assisted therapies for those in addiction recovery programs. Although each focuses on therapeutic activities that incorporate the healing benefits of interacting with animals, they reach that end from different perspectives. Some of these can be slightly more passive interactions, where the participant’s benefits come from the animal itself. An example of this would be having a dog or cat present in the room during therapy sessions to reduce stress and anxiety levels and make therapy more productive.
Other types of animal-assisted therapies involve more active participation on the part of the patient in recovery. One such model would be a substance use recovery program that integrates animal husbandry into its recovery program. In this situation, the benefit to the patient results from actively taking care of the animals. Not only does taking care of an animal build confidence, but it can also serve as a distraction from cravings and emotional triggers.
What Is Animal Husbandry?
Animal husbandry is a form of agriculture that focuses on raising and breeding domestic animals. People who practice animal husbandry breed, care for, and raise animals to provide milk, eggs, meat, and other food products, as well as fiber for human use. This entails ensuring that the animals are fed properly, have access to fresh water, have a safe and clean shelter, stay free of disease, and are bred to ensure healthy stock. The major types of animal husbandry are dairy farming, poultry farming, fish farming, and beekeeping.
The importance of animal husbandry as a tool in substance use recovery programs centers on the fact that caring for animals can provide vital meaning and purpose for those whose experiences have previously centered on dependency and a sense of hopelessness.
Benefits of Caring for Animals During Addiction Recovery
Patients going through a substance use recovery program must overcome physical challenges, mental blocks, and emotional obstacles. The artificial stimulation that various substances provided for the neurotransmitters and receptors must be replaced with natural alternatives. Working with animal-assisted therapy programs during recovery provides a healthy way to stimulate the brain’s pleasure receptors.
Using an animal husbandry model as a part of a substance use recovery program becomes more of an animal-assisted therapy because the focus is on ways that the person in recovery can care for the animal. In this model, the relationship between the animal and the patient is more reciprocal. The person going through recovery can look beyond their situation and find purpose in caring for another living creature. Taking responsibility for the feeding, grooming, and ultimate well-being of an animal can help build the self-esteem of a person going through recovery. This is a necessary step for the patient to feel strong enough to accomplish the often-difficult task of achieving and maintaining sobriety.
Find Recovery Help at Maryland Recovery
At Maryland Recovery, we that animals help humans improve their mental health. Animal-assisted therapy is a great tool for addiction recovery because it teaches kindness.
We understand the wide array of benefits that animal-assisted therapy can provide during the recovery program. Our animal husbandry program helps nourish self-esteem and confidence by caring for the horses, pigs, and other animals on our property. Our licensed therapist works with you to develop a recovery strategy that offers both success and moments of extreme joy. We can help you identify your substance use disorder’s origin and develop a recovery strategy that works for you. Call (877) 958-9370 today for a free consultation.
Dr. Bhalavat is Board Certified in General Psychiatry and Addiction Medicine, and provides inpatient evaluation and consultation services at the University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Medical Center, University of Maryland Harford Memorial Hospital, Maryland Recovery Partners, and Citizens Care & Rehabilitation Center. Dr. Bhalavat’s background includes treatment of depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia spectrum disorders, bipolar disorder, substance abuse and dementia.
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