Ever been greeted by a dog who’s thrilled to see you, snuggled up with a sweetly purring cat or cracked up at something a cockatiel blurted? Then you have a sense of how the power of pets can make people feel better physically and mentally – benefits that the Human Animal Bond Research Institute has termed the “Pet Effect.”
From reducing stress to providing nonjudgmental companionship, pets can be a valuable source of support and motivation for those in recovery from addiction to alcohol and drugs. Whether you’ve just entered rehab or are further along in your recovery journey, here’s how pets can help maintain a healthy lifestyle and a state of mind that supports sobriety.
Pets relieve loneliness.
In early recovery, many people experience feelings of guilt, loneliness and anxiety. These negative feelings not only make people feel bad, they can be triggers for relapse. Research suggests that when people live alone, having a pet can help people feel more connected and less isolated, which are both protective against relapse.
Pets boost your mood.
Depression is very common in people in early recovery from substance use disorders. People may have started using alcohol or drugs as a way to escape from the negative emotions associated with depression. Symptoms of depression can also emerge when negative feelings numbed by alcohol and drugs return. Pets can’t cure symptoms of depression. But research shows interacting with animals can boost the mood, and can help alleviate mild to moderate depression.
Caring for, feeding and playing with a pet increases mood-elevating brain chemicals like dopamine and serotonin. A 2015 study by researchers in Japan showed that gazing into a dog’s eyes increased levels of oxytocin, a neurotransmitter sometimes called the “love hormone.”
A study by researchers at Washington State University showed that teen-aged boys in a substance abuse treatment program who helped feed, brush and play with shelter dogs felt less sadness and a greater sense of serenity compared to a group of boys who played pool, video games or basketball instead. Many of the boys were also in treatment for depression and PTSD.
Pets are good for heart health.
According to a scientific statement from the American Heart Association, dog ownership is associated with lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol. The statement cited a study that included 240 married couples, and found that pet owners had lower heart rates and blood pressure as compared to those without pets.
Pets don’t criticize or judge.
Nonjudgmental and always seemingly happy to see you, pets provide an uncomplicated form of love and companionship. No matter how bad you feel inside, how bad you think you look on the outside or how bad of a day you just had, pets are always glad you showed up. Free of baggage, the unconditional nature of the bonds between humans and their pets can be extremely important for people rebuilding their self-esteem after drug and alcohol addiction.
Pets encourage responsibility.
Walking, feeding and caring for a pet require people in recovery to take responsibility for another creature. Taking care of a pet can also help people in developing a routine. Taking care of pet can help a person in recovery rebuild their sense of self-esteem and self-worth, reminding them that they are competent and capable. Knowing your pet is at home and waiting for you to return can also help people in avoiding temptation to slip from their sober routine.
Pets help people reconnect with their emotions.
People may have the capacity to be manipulative or fake, but the emotions of animals are up front and honest. Because they can’t hide their feelings, animals, especially dogs and horses, will show you right away if they’re feeling frightened and upset, or happy and relaxed.
People who struggle with addiction also sometimes struggle to develop meaningful relationships with others. Creating those bonds with animals can help them reconnect to their own emotions. Talking with animals can help people improve their ability to express feelings, and can remind them what it takes to develop a nurturing, trusting relationship. Animals can also mirror the emotions of people. If someone is fearful and anxious around a horse, the horse will respond with fear and anxiety. Seeing themselves reflected in a horse can help people learn to recognize and express the way that they’re feeling, and recognize the ways that their behavior impacts others.
Pets encourage social interaction.
Research shows that walking with a dog leads to more conversations and helps people stay socially connected. It’s important for people in recovery avoid isolation and to build a support system of sober friends. A pet can be an icebreaker when meeting new people, or a reason to get out of the house and go to the dog park.
Pets, especially dogs, encourage people to exercise.
Exercise is important for all aspects of health, and addiction recovery in particular. By naturally boosting dopamine, exercise helps to counteract some of the damage to the brain caused by the misuse of drugs and alcohol. Research shows that people who have a dog walk more than those who don’t.
An NIH-funded investigation looked at more than 2,000 adults and found that dog owners who regularly walked their dogs were more physically active and less likely to be obese than those who didn’t own or walk a dog. Another study supported by NIH followed more than 2,500 older adults, ages 71-82, for 3 years. Those who regularly walked their dogs walked faster and for longer time periods each week than others who didn’t walk regularly. Older dog walkers also had greater mobility inside their homes than others in the study.
Can you still benefit from interacting with animals if you don’t have a pet?
Yes! One way is by volunteering at an animal shelter or for a rescue organization. Volunteering to help animals is a great way to create a feeling of purpose in recovery, not to mention a chance to play with furry friends who will welcome you enthusiastically. You may even find that you not only develop bonds with the animals, but that you make new human friends who share your passion.