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According to the American Pet Products Association 2011-2012 National Pet Owners Survey, 39 percent of households in the United States contain at least one dog and 33 percent contain at least one cat. For many people, these animals are more than furry creatures that run underfoot and demand food on a regular basis. Instead, these pets are treated like cherished members of the family. Some families even celebrate their pets’ birthdays.

People who have pets may rely upon them for unconditional love and complete understanding. Just holding the pet can make these people feel more healthy and comfortable with life. But, pets may be able to do much more in an addiction recovery program. In fact, animal-assisted therapy (AAT) might be an ideal way to help you get through some of the challenges your addiction has left behind.

What Animals Are Used?

Typical AAT programs utilize dogs and cats, as they are animals most people are familiar with owning on their own, but some programs use other animals including:

Understanding Animal-Assisted Therapy

An AAT program provides more than human/pet interaction. These aren’t simple visits where you’re asked to pet the pretty kitty and feel her purr buzz through your skin. Instead, an AAT program works in conjunction with your larger addiction treatment program, helping to reinforce the lessons you’re learning there. For example, some types of drugs can cause you to lose fine motor skills. Your hands might shake, or pinching small items between your fingers might be difficult. In your AAT program, you might be asked to snap on a dog’s collar or feed a cat tiny pieces of tuna. Similarly, some drug addictions can make it hard for you to remember details or follow a series of instructions. In your AAT sessions, you might be asked to brush a dog, starting at the head and moving down to the paws. As you complete these steps, in sequence, you’re practicing your memory skills and the presence of the dog serves to calm and comfort you.

AAT programs might have many goals, but according to Pet Partners, common goals include:

  • Improvement of motors skills
  • Increased ability to pay attention
  • Increased vocabulary

  • Improvement in memory
  • Increased exercise

AAT is provided by a licensed counselor. This person works in close contact with your addiction therapist, learning more about the lessons you might need to learn and then developing a program that’s made just for you. In each session, the counselor outlines what you’ll need to do, and then stays with you throughout the entire session as you perform the task. The counselor can step in if the animal begins to misbehave, but the counselor might also ask you questions about the interaction and encourage you to talk about what you are learning and what you are feeling. It’s far from a passive activity, as you’ll be moving and talking throughout the entire session.

There is no set amount of time that’s ideal to participate in AAT. Some programs provide the counseling for just a few weeks, until skills improve and the AAT doesn’t seem to be contributing to recovery. Other programs use animals in a variety of different ways, so AAT is always a functional part of the care provided.

*How Are Animals Prepared for AAT?

Most animals that participate in AAT go through vigorous screenings with a veterinarian. Some physical problems in animals can be passed to humans, but physical problems in animals can also make them uncomfortable and less likely to stay calm during therapy. It’s important for these screenings to take place to reduce that risk. AAT dogs must pass several behavioral tests, and AAT cats and rabbits have their own versions of tests to pass. The therapist must also demonstrate the ability to train and control the animal in difficult situations.

Moving Beyond the Physical

Animal-assisted therapy can provide you with benefits that move beyond the physical. As your addiction strengthened, you might have become withdrawn and unable to communicate with others. Many people report that addictions force them to keep secrets, and lying and hiding become a way of life as a result. It can be hard to turn off weeks or years of habits like this, and it might be difficult for you to open up with your therapist and the members of your support group. Animals might help you to feel more relaxed and likely to open up with other people. The animal gives you something to talk about, and it gives you and the therapist something to focus on. Talking might be easier in this environment.

In addition, you might begin to look forward to your AAT sessions. The animals in these programs might be trained not to jump, kick or show supreme joy when they see you, but you might still form an attachment to the animal you work with, and you might look forward to seeing that animal again. Having something so positive in your life might help reduce your sense of isolation and depression.

For some people, the work that begins in AAT continues when formal treatment is over and they return home again to their pets. Studies have demonstrated that animals have a major role to play in improving mental health. For example, a study published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry found that in people recovering from a serious mental illness, having a pet improved the recovery process by:

  • Providing empathy
  • Allowing the person to connect with others on a social basis
  • Serving as a member of the family
  • Strengthening a sense of empowerment

These could be benefits you’ll need in order to achieve long-term sobriety.

*Taking Animal-Assisted Therapy Home

When your formal addiction program ends, a pet might help you to keep a relapse at bay. For example, your pet might provide you with a sense of routine. Each day, that pet must be fed, and dogs must be walked. This gives you a way to fill the time, and you might feel a sense of accomplishment as you provide your pet with the best kind of care and attention. Pets can also provide you with unconditional love and companionship, and this might help you to banish feelings of loneliness and isolation. This is especially true if your pet requires you to be social. You might meet other pet owners at the veterinarian’s office or at the dog park, and these people might become your close friends.

Not Right for Everyone

While the therapy can be beneficial for many people, there are some who don’t always benefit from AAT. For example, some people have severe allergies to furry or feathered animals, and working with these creatures can cause them physical distress. The benefits these people would gain from AAT is likely not balanced by the discomfort they’ll feel interacting with something they’re allergic to. In addition, some people have significant fears of animals. Large dogs, in particular, can be terrifying for some people as they may have been bitten or attacked earlier in life. Again, AAT might not be beneficial for these people. And some people don’t have conditions that can be adequately treated with AAT. You might not have problems with motor skills or communication, for example, so an AAT therapist might not be able to design a program that’s right for you. It might be beneficial for you to receive visits from a friendly pet, but you might not be provided with a formal AAT program in this situation.

*Helping the Animal

While it’s true that AAT has specific benefits for the person going through therapy, some studies suggest that animals also benefit from AAT. For example, a study in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research found that neurochemicals associated with a reduction in blood pressure were lowered in humans after AAT, but they were also lowered in the dogs that participated in the program. As you work with the animal in AAT, you might also be helping that animal, and that could be a mental boost for you.

There are many treatment programs throughout the US that incorporate animal-assisted therapy into their offerings. If you’d like help locating one, contact us today.

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