Addiction and Animal Therapy | How a Pet Can Help You Overcome Anything
By Tim Stoddart
The Health Benefits
Ask any pet owner and they’ll likely tell you about the many benefits of pet ownership. But what most people don’t know is that there are health benefits to owning pets. We know that dogs can be service animals, but there’s even more to their therapeutic effects. And possibly the best part is that your pet already offers therapeutic benefits without any training.
Someone who is recovering from addiction can especially benefit from owning a pet. Most research has been done on dogs and some on cats because these are the most common domesticated animals. Below are some conditions that pet ownership has been shown to help improve:
Depression: At least one study has proven that dog owners are less likely to suffer from depression than people who don’t own dogs. A 2017 web-based study published in the journal JMIR Mental Health found that people who didn’t own dogs were three times more likely to be depressed than dog owners.
High blood pressure: Other studies have shown that owning a dog may help you keep your blood pressure low. A 1988 Journal of Behavioral Medicine study found that the act of petting a dog lowered participant’s blood pressure regardless of their feelings towards dogs. Even people who were indifferent about dogs experienced the benefit of lowered blood pressure.
Addiction: Imagine yourself in a room surrounded by puppies. If you’re imagining a feel-good sensation, you’re right on track. One study found that petting a pooch resulted in decreased cortisol and increased serotonin levels. Cortisol is a brain chemical that’s associated with stress and serotonin is associated with wellbeing and contentment. Having a dog nearby while going through recovery may help combat the decrease in serotonin levels that many recovering addicts experience.
High triglycerides: According to research from Harvard University, people who own pets have lower triglycerides than people who don’t. Triglycerides are a type of cholesterol that can be problematic.
Cardiovascular disease: In addition to lowered triglycerides and reduced blood pressure, owning a pet may reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular disease. A 12-year Swedish study found that people who owned dogs were less likely to have heart disease. The study found that people with hunting dogs had the lowest risk.
General wellbeing: Senior pet owners make 30 percent fewer visits to their doctor than their petless counterparts.
How pets can help in addiction recovery
If you’re a pet enthusiast, it probably won’t take a mountain of research to sway your opinion on the benefits of pet ownership. At a most basic level, pets can cheer you up when you’re feeling down. He or she probably doesn’t even understand your human problems will love you unconditionally.
The following are a few examples of how a pet can help you overcome addiction or anything else.
1. More exercise and sunshine. When you’re feeling depressed, walking your dog may be the only reason you get out of your pajamas. But the bit of exercise can get your blood flowing and the sunshine may temporarily make you feel better. Adopting healthier habits like these can play a role in reducing symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress.
2. Built-in companionship. During recovery, many people go through an awkward time where they avoid old friends who have bad habits but they’ve yet to solidify new friendships. A pet is like a friend who is always there and ready to give you love.
3. A shift in focus. When you’re lost in your problems, things can seem very dark. With a pet, you’re forced to get outside your head, if only for a while, to care for another being. This act may even make you feel needed or wanted, which can help improve your outlook. It’s hard not to smile when you come home to a wagging tail.
4. Starting conversations. If you don’t have a dog, take your friend’s dog to the park. You’ll notice how easy it is to talk to new people when you’re with your pet. You can start by asking questions about their dog and talking about the dog you’re walking. When you’re feeling depressed, you may want to avoid social interaction, but that can be harmful. Even short bursts of conversation are better for you than being completely introverted.
5. Settling anxiety. We’ve seen how pets can help reduce blood pressure, lower cortisol and increase serotonin. These are all things that can help combat anxiety. If you’re feeling an anxiety attack coming on, stop what you’re doing and give your pet some attention. You may start feeling better right away.
6. Creating a routine. Dogs function best when you give them a regular routine. If you let your dog out at the same time every day, he will come to expect it, and he’ll be ready to do his business. This type of routine is good for you too. If nothing else, it will get you out of bed at a reasonable time.
Pet ownership has many mental and physical benefits, but please be sure you’re ready for your own pet before you get one. Owning a pet is a major responsibility and commitment. This is a decision that should remain with you for the life of the pet. But this also means that you’ll reap the rewards of pet ownership for a pet lifetime.