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Support Animals In Addiction Treatment & Recovery

“Why do homeless people have dogs?”

This is the most commonly googled question about homeless people. And yet, the answer is so deeply intuitive that it’s a wonder we ask it at all. According to the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, research on the topic overwhelmingly points to two main reasons:

  1. Love and companionship
  2. A sense of purpose, responsibility, and accountability

Many people who live without a home can’t imagine living without their pets, despite the challenges of caring for a pet with limited resources. What does this tell us about our need for social connection?

The notion that animal companions make our lives better has been around for centuries. And though some variability does exist for individuals, it’s an idea that’s supported by decades of research. 

With all of this in mind, can animals help in addiction treatment and recovery? In the sections below, we look at how animals can support people who struggle with substance use.

Support Animals in Addictions Treatment

Elena Blanco-Suarez, Ph.D., writes about Animal-Assisted Therapy in an article for Psychology Today. While the article doesn’t focus on addiction, it does highlight the benefits of the “Pet-Human Bond” in clinical settings, which are many and varied.

Along with promoting comfort and a sense of well-being, Pet Therapy, as it’s also called, has been shown to relieve stress and anxiety in clinical settings. From a biomedical perspective, being around animals increases our endorphins (feel-good chemicals) while decreasing our levels of stress hormones like epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol. This is true for people both with underlying medical conditions and for the general population.

support animal comforting owner

Interestingly, Animal-Assisted Therapy can also play a role in pain management. An article in the peer-reviewed medical journal, Current Pain and Headache Reports looks at the pain-management potential of therapy dogs. It notes a number of studies which report significant pain relief through Animal-Assisted Therapy and explores theories as to how dogs are able to help us deal with pain.

Furthermore, a meta-analysis of studies on the topic found that 26 out of 28 studies reviewed pointed to positive outcomes from animal therapy in clinical settings. Given the reported psychological benefits of being around pets, it’s no wonder Animal-Assisted Therapy has gained traction in addiction treatment and recovery.

Animals Improve Our Quality Of Life

The Butler Center for Research points to another way that Animal-Assisted Therapy improves outcomes for people seeking help with addictions. In this research, therapy animals have been shown to not only reduce patient anxiety about receiving treatment but also improve “therapeutic alliance and general regard for the treatment environment.”

In other words, pet therapy improves the quality of the relationship formed between patient and therapist. The reduced anxiety and improved relationship work together to increase the likelihood that patients will adhere to their recommended treatment plan.

What’s more, Animal-Assisted Therapy isn’t limited to puppies and fluffy kittens. This therapy can make use of a broad range of animals, including farm animals, fish, and even insects!

Man running outdoors with his support animal

Benefits of Support Animals In Recovery 

At Sunshine Coast Health Centre, we see many people adopt a pet as part of their recovery. Pets provide a lot of the same benefits of social interaction with other humans, without the stress that we tend to experience around other people.

Recovery can be a difficult and tender part of our lives. It’s not uncommon for those in recovery to want to avoid other people; even well-intentioned friends can be a source of stress during this time. Pets provide a safe and comforting connection during recovery by being a source of unconditional love and companionship. What’s more, pets can also provide a sense of purpose, responsibility and accountability, all of which are meaningful to recovery.

About Our Centres

At SCHC and GSWC, we welcome support and therapy pets (cats and dogs) and guide animals. In order to support those with allergies, animals are allowed only in specific areas of the buildings. We believe in supporting people in bringing their animals to treatment if they play a significant role in the individual’s life and well-being. Please reach out to us to see if having your pet or guide animal at SCHC/GSWC is a good fit.

Sunshine Coast Health Centre and Georgia Strait Women’s Clinic are world-class centers for addiction treatment and mental health. At SCHC, we take an approach that recognizes the importance of the physical, psychological, social and spiritual aspects of individuals in treatment and recovery. If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use, mental health, or PTSD, give us a call today.

Additional Sources:

https://canadiancentreforaddictions.org/animal-assisted-addiction-therapy/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1295517/

https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/canine-corner/202112/does-having-pet-dog-make-suicide-less-likely

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