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Making a Difference ~ Companions for Change Help Pets in Need

Can Owning a Pet Help You Recover From SUD?

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(Image from Deposit Photos)

Substance use disorder (SUD) is an incredibly complex condition with different underlying causes, all varying in each affected individual. It’s almost always impossible to say with any certainty whether or not any single approach will work for every patient. Long-term success in treating SUD and co-occurring mental health disorders is almost always reliant on trying out different combinations of psychotherapy and medication-assisted modes of treatment.

That said, while a cat, dog, or ferret might not be able to get you out of a SUD by themselves, a growing amount of evidence suggests that, for many people, having a non-human companion can be critical for improving their long-term recovery outcomes.

meta-study on decades of research involving SUD, mental health disorders, and the role of animal-assisted therapy (AAT) strongly suggests that regular contact with animals can speed up and strengthen recovery in a number of ways. Boston Drug Treatment Centers, a New England-based rehab network, reports that the popularity and availability of animal-assisted therapy have grown significantly in recent years.

Here are just some ways having a pet, volunteering at an animal shelter, or participating in a rehab program that offers AAT can improve your odds of long-term SUD recovery.

1.) Animals Can Make You More Empathetic

People with drug and alcohol problems often have problems communicating with others, particularly when it comes to understanding other people’s viewpoints. Empathy and other communication skills need to be practiced, and advanced SUD often leads to a gradual deterioration in these. This can make it difficult to readjust to life after rehab, as most personal and professional relationships are reliant on it. 

Though recovering individuals may regain these skills in time, regular contact with animal companions might speed up this process. A Hungarian study on SUD and animal-assisted therapy demonstrates that being in close contact with animals helps affected individuals improve their empathy faster. 

While a dog or a horse may not be able to communicate in the same way a human would, the dissimilarity in how they communicate can more actively engage our empathy and communications skills, forcing us to observe and listen more intently and empathetically. Developing these core skills can often prove vital later when empathizing with humans. 

Depositphotos_33667411_l-2015(Image from Deposit Photos)

2.) They Can Put You On a Productive Schedule

Having a schedule prevents boredom, conserves mental energy, and allows you to more or less automatically do things that help your long-term recovery. This is precisely why residential drug and alcohol rehab programs tend to be jam-packed with activities, as keeping busy and productive directly aids in healing and preventing relapses.

For people who aren’t in a residential program, however, keeping to a strict schedule can be extremely challenging. Not being responsible to other people makes it easy to be less considerate with your time, which can ultimately lead to the boredom and relapse risks that you’re trying to avoid.  

Having a pet or volunteering at a shelter, however, puts you in the position of being responsible for other lives. This responsibility can be key in making one proactive with their time. Activities beneficial to SUD recovery like exercise, meditation, and medication-assisted therapy could be tied to an animal companion’s play and feeding times — which they probably have no problem reminding you of. This may provide you with the external motivation you need to continue with recovery.


Depositphotos_165075820_l-2015(Image from Deposit Photos)

3.) Animal Companions Can Provide Invaluable Emotional Support

Today, emotional support animals are widely recognized for being essential for people with different mental health issues. Your cat will never judge you — at least not for the things human beings might. Now there’s growing evidence that they can also provide valuable emotional support for people recovering from SUD.

People recovering from drug and alcohol misuse often feel isolated and lonely, not in small part thanks to prevailing attitudes on SUDs and mental health. Having a trusty animal companion, regardless of the species, can go a long way in mitigating feelings of loneliness and depression in recovering individuals. This can be critical in improving your motivation to continue to be better.

Additionally, having animal companions has been shown in studies to be an effective way of reducing anxiety. Anxiety is a common indirect cause of SUD and is also common among people ceasing substance misuse. This makes the anxiety-busting powers of pets extremely valuable for anyone recovering from drugs or alcohol.

Should You Get a Pet?

Getting a pet is a serious responsibility that not everyone is prepared to undertake. People in early recovery may not be emotionally stable enough to take on the added responsibility of a pet, especially if they have problems with their finances. For these recovering individuals, volunteering at a shelter or choosing a rehab program that offers AAT may be a better option.

However, for those who have completed a rehab program and have a decent amount of existing social and financial support, having a pet to keep you motivated and emotionally healthy might be worth considering. Get in touch with your therapist and discuss whether an emotional support pet animal may be a good choice for you.


Depositphotos_47859949_xl-2015(Image from Deposit Photos)