How Pets Can Assist in Recovery
Benefits of Pet Ownership During Recovery
When it comes to addiction treatment and recovery, pet ownership usually doesn’t make the top-10 list of therapy recommendations. However, based on a host of studies and anecdotal reports about the perks of pet ownership, maybe it should.
Pets—including everything from cats and dogs to lizards and rabbits—can offer a bevy of benefits that are often directly aligned with the needs of those in recovery. For example, along with providing unconditional love and companionship, pets can decrease stress and anxiety, stave off loneliness, improve physical health, aid in socialization, and even foster responsibility, self-efficacy, and self-worth.
Coincidentally, those in recovery can typically use a boost to their self-esteem, a sober friend that’s always there and never judges them, motivation to get off the couch and get moving, a daily routine, a dose of responsibility, and a healthy way to fill the time previously spent misusing substances or hanging out with people likely to trigger this behavior.
So let’s take a look at the benefits of pet ownership—or even pet fostering or pet sitting—along with some factors to consider before you bring home your purrfect companion.
Pets Provide Unconditional Love and Companionship
Recovery can sometimes bring on feelings of loneliness and isolation. After all, many people in the early stages of recovery have likely disengaged from old, triggering friends and activities and have begun the hunt for new ones. What’s more, some people struggling with a substance use disorder may be suffering from low self esteem and experiencing real or imagined judgement from family and friends.
A pet can offer not only companionship to lessen loneliness but also nonjudgmental support and unconditional love for exactly who you are right here and right now. According to a paper published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science, dogs in particular can contribute to feelings of safety and offer a calming presence. This same paper goes on to explain that pets not only offer a sense of belonging but also seem to sense human emotions and respond accordingly, often acting as supportive companions when we’re at our most vulnerable.1
Pets Help to Relieve Stress, Ease Depression, and Boost Mental Health
The presence of both a substance use disorder and a mental health disorder—a pairing known as a co-occurring disorder—affects 9.2 million adults in the U.S. and is common among individuals in treatment.2 Thus, many people in recovery likely suffer from mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic disorder, etc. This suggests that tactics that facilitate mental health can aid recovery as well.
According to various sources including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pets can decrease a host of mental health symptoms and perceptions of threats.1,3,4 Specifically, pets have been linked to decreases in:1,5
Pets are so adept at relieving stress, in fact, that some colleges now offer therapy dogs to ease the pressure during high-anxiety times on campus (e.g., before and during exams). Aside from warm fuzzies, the strategy breeds purebred results. A recent trial paired typical academic-stress management tactics with therapy-dog interactions. Compared to the use of either strategy alone, the pairing led to significantly higher levels of enjoyment, self-regulation, behavior change, and feelings of usefulness.1
Some studies also suggest that having a dog present during psychotherapies (e.g., cognitive behavioral therapy) can help to decrease distress and anxiousness in those who have experienced trauma. What’s more, the physical act of petting an animal seems to have benefits in itself. Tactile interactions such as touching and stroking have been shown to offer a calming response in both animals and humans, likely caused by increased oxytocin levels.1
Pets Encourage Exercise and Improve Cardiovascular Health
Granted, not all types of pets will make you move more than you already do. After all, it’s pretty unlikely that a pet gerbil will prompt you to begin a daily walking routine. But pets that require regular outdoor exercise accompanied by their owners (such as dogs, horses, potbellied pigs, and even ferrets and rabbits) can encourage more movement in their pet parents. This added movement, then, generates a host of benefits.
Chief among them may be cardiovascular advantages. A recent meta-analysis including data from more than 3 million participants revealed that dog ownership was associated with a 31% risk reduction in death due to cardiovascular disease.1 Additionally, sources such as the CDC indicate that regular movement with pets and/or the mere presence of pets in the face of acute mental stressors are associated with:1,3,5
- Decreased blood pressure and resting heart rate.
- Lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
- Increased physical activity.
- Improved survival in those with cardiovascular disease.
Pets Foster Accountability, Self-Efficacy, and Self-Worth
Owning a pet of any kind is a big responsibility, and it’s nothing to be taken lightly. (See more on that below.) However, the increased accountability associated with pet ownership can also foster improved self-efficacy and self-worth.1,4
Caring for another life can be rewarding in itself. But doing so can also increase your motivation and discipline to stay on track in recovery. In fact, pet-human relationships may provide the motivation to do things that are less desirable, according to at least one study. And fulfilling these responsibilities enhances feelings of self-worth.1
What’s more, anecdotal evidence suggests that in extreme cases, pet ownership may even restore a person’s will to live. That is, in one personal report, a woman’s fear of what would happen to her pet in her absence kept her from following through on her suicidal thoughts.4
Pets Aid in Socialization
Socialization is a viable antidote to the loneliness and isolation that often accompany early recovery. Pets can promote socialization in several ways.3
In some cases, pet parents are forced to leave their houses to properly exercise their pets or allow them to relieve themselves outdoors. This, in itself, puts the individual in situations where social interaction is more likely.
However, pets in general and dogs in particular give their humans a leg up, so to speak, when it comes to socialization. Research has shown that dogs facilitate interaction between their humans and others. Observational studies suggest that being accompanied by a dog increases the frequency of social interactions and acknowledgements such as smiles, friendly glances, etc.).1
And regarless of the pet type, pet owners always have at least something in common with each other. This commonality, then, gives strangers something to talk about. Rather than awkward exchanges about the weather, pet owners can chat about boxer drool, cat shenanigans, the best kibble concoctions, local veterinary services, and more.
Nine Questions to Help Match People to Pets
Clearly, pet ownership can offer a host of benefits to those in recovery. However, not everyone is ready for the responsibilities of owning a pet—nor well suited for every type of pet or even breed of animal. After all, caring for a well-mannered turtle in your suburban townhouse where you work from home is loads easier than parenting a rescued doodle puppy with separation anxiety while living in an urban high rise and working in an office 60 hours a week.
Matching the person to the pet is paramount. In fact, an improper pairing can actually increase stress, anxiety, depression, and more—which wipes out most of the aforementioned benefits.
So before you get your heart set on a specific type of pet or breed of critter, ask yourself these questions and be utterly honest with your answers. An ill-advised pet purchase can not only add stress to your situation but also negatively affect the health and happiness of your furry, fuzzy, feathered, or scaly companion.
- How big is the pet or how big will it get? Consider your living conditions and how the pet will fit into them. An aquarium in the corner takes up way less room than a Great Dane, for example.
- How much exercise does it require? Obviously, some pets need much more exercise than others. But even within the same breed of animal, exercise requirements vary. For example, a young boxer needs way more exercise and mental stimulation than a 10-year-old basset hound. So it’s critical to match your energy level and available time with the exercise requirements of the pet.
- What age of pet most closely fits my needs? Puppies and kittens are adorable. But they require an incredible amount of work, not to mention oodles of money and patience. Chances are, you’re looking for a companion and a calming force in your life—not a stressful puppy that’s yapping, peeing, and chewing 24/7. In addition to less-active types of pets (e.g., gerbils, turtles, birds, etc.), older animals can be amazing companions. Especially when you obtain an adult pet through rescues with home-based foster programs (where humans get to know the pets considerably better than pets living in a shelter), you should be able to ascertain basic personality traits, common behaviors, and health issues before you ever bring the pet home with you. Point is, older and calmer pets can be just as if not more beneficial than younger and more active options.
- How long will it live? Some animals such as parrots can easily live 50 years, while others such as guinea pigs are a 4- or 5-year commitment. Are you looking for a lifelong companion for decades to come? Or do you foresee your own situation changing to the point that a decades-long commitment isn’t feasible?
- Does my home provide an environment suitable for this pet? Certainly, you need to determine if your apartment complex, city, homeowners’ association, etc. will allow you to have this type, size, and breed of pet. But you also need to consider whether the conditions of your home are suitable as well. For example, if you live in an apartment, you likely don’t want an animal that will make a lot of noise and disturb other residents. Or, if you have a high-energy dog, you may want a fenced yard that’ll make it easier for you to play with your pup and burn off some energy.
- How much can I afford to pay for veterinary services, food, pet insurance, pet supplies, boarding, and more? Caring for some pets will cost a whole lot more than others. But it’s important to budget out just how much you can expect to pay to care for your companion to ensure this particular pet is financially feasible for your current and future situation.
- How much time do you have? In addition to caring for your pet (which includes feeding, training, exercising, health care, and more), you need to have enough time available to provide the pet with the appropriate amount of emotional care and attention it needs to thrive. You don’t want to buy a cat, for example, and then leave it locked in a spare room for the majority of its life simply because you’re too busy to interact with it.
- How will this pet impact other residents of your home? If you don’t live alone, it’s important to consider how other members of the household—kids, parents, seniors, etc.—will feel about and be affected by the new addition.
- How much pet-ownership experience do you have? If you’ve never skied before, you probably want to start on the bunny hill instead of the double black diamond slope. Similarly, if you’ve never owned a dog before, for example, you might want to start with a middle-aged, fully trained golden retriever rather than a special needs Siberian Huskey puppy with behavioral issues. Obviously, this applies to all sorts of pets aside from dogs. The point is to simply match your knowledge and experience to the pet’s perceived level of difficulty, so to speak.
No matter now many benefits a pet can provide, you may not be ready—financially, emotionally, physically, or otherwise—to take on the responsibilities right now. And that’s OK. It’s far better to realize that now is not the time to take on a pet than to upend your life and that of a pet only to have to find it a new home a few months, weeks, or days down the road.
Also note that if you want to reap some of the aforementioned pet benefits without the long-term commitment, there are opportunities to work with and/or help animals temporarily or sporadically. Most animal shelters are always looking for volunteers to care for and/or simply interact with animals under their care. You can search for both pets and animal welfare groups sorted by location at PetFinder.com.
Another option is to foster with local rescues, as it allows you to provide temporary care for a pet until it finds its forever home. Additionally, rescues often need temporary fosters, which are people who take over pet care while foster home families go on vacation, attend healthcare visits, and more.
Pet ownership is a big commitment, and matching the needs of the pet to your availability, finances, personality, and more is critical. But when people and pets are properly paired, pet ownerships can offer a host of benefits to those in recovery.