Pets are great therapists. Ask anyone who has been through heartbreak with a pet, and she will tell you that her dog or cat helped her pull through. And it’s not just that dogs and cats are non-judgmental. Pets help us heal in a myriad of other ways, some of which are just now being discovered.
It’s no wonder, then, that people with mental illness and recovering addicts place so much stock in their animal companions. If animals help with everyday sadness and despair, imagine how they help those who are mired in depression, obsession, or the craving for a fix.
The role of therapy pets is expanding almost daily as science discovers the value of companion animals to recovery. A few years ago, you rarely saw a working dog not attached to a blind person.
Today, we see dogs attached to many different people. Emotional support dogs are trained to heal and help, just as seeing eye dogs are trained to guide and steer clear of danger. It may be that the sector of people who have most benefitted from emotional support dogs are veterans.
For people with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), dogs provide constant comfort, protection, distraction, and an opportunity to take pride in caring for another creature. Just walking a dog provides numerous health benefits. It exercises the dog walker, gets him out of his head, and connects him to his neighborhood and the people in it.
These same dogs can help a wider range of people with emotional and personality disorders such as clinical depression, bipolar disorder, even severe psychosis. The mentally ill often feel isolated even from friends and family. Dogs and cats directly combat that sense of being all alone.
Even though science has proven the benefits of pet ownership for the mentally ill, few people have been prescribed pets. A recent article in BMC Psychiatry refers to pets as a form of “self-management” for those struggling with mental disorders. In other words, if you have been diagnosed with depression or another personality disorder, you might want to prescribe pet ownership for yourself. If you already have a pet, actively incorporate him or her into your recovery regime.
Pets for Recovering Addicts
Pets provide wonderful therapy for people who are overcoming an addiction. The Los Angeles Times reports that pets raise the levels of serotonin in people who own them. Since serotonin is the natural chemical in our bloodstreams that makes us happy and helps us recover from stress and rejection, a serotonin boost is a particularly good thing for those in recovery.
Pets also help recovering addicts overcome and avoid negative thought patterns. And pets need a routine and a lot of care, so they help those in recovery to develop accountability and a routine of their own.
Sixty to seventy percent of recovering addicts report that their pets help them stay on the right track. After all, you can’t self-destruct if you have an animal to take care of, right? An animal becomes an unassailable reason to stay clean and sober, in and of itself, according to a recent survey of pet-owning former addicts.
The value of pets in recovery has even motivated many rehabilitation facilities to allow pets to be admitted along with their humans. People who staff rehab clinics say that pets can make an important difference in whether an addict truly commits to recovery for the long term.
Until medical professionals on the front line of treatment catch up with science, those recovering from mental illness and addiction need to recognize the value of companion animals. If you need a cat or a dog, visit your local animal shelter or humane society and see about adopting one.