Companion Animals in Recovery

Who says your support system has to be human?

A companion animal, be it a dog, cat, rabbit, bird, or lizard, can provide irreplaceable support as you overcome an addiction. The stress of detox and treatment can be overwhelming at times, and you may at times feel worse than before seeking treatment. But spending time with a pet can help! Animals can ease the physiological and psychological stress of undergoing treatment, provide companionship, and teach lessons on how to be a fully responsible, functioning adult. Their stress-relieving presence is calming, helping to move you from a negative headspace into a positive one, revitalizing your recovery process in a healthy way.

Interacting with animals has been proven to increase your brain’s oxytocin levels; oxytocin is a neurotransmitter that reduces stress, relaxes the mind, and increases feelings of connection to others. Playing with a pet helps lower symptoms of depression and anxiety, greatly reducing the risk of relapse. If you’re feeling down, the unconditional positive regard of a companion animal can’t be replaced. Whether it’s curling up on your lap or licking your face, pets never hesitate to show affection, something that can be especially useful when your mood is low. And with their need for attention and walks, animals encourage physical activity. Regular exercise combats the physiological side effects of detox and causes the release of dopamine, which is your brain’s signal for pleasure.

On a basic level, caring for an animal enables you to focus on something outside of yourself, to put another being’s needs above your own, which is a complete one-eighty from active addiction. Caring for an animal can help you rediscover self-confidence and self-esteem. By caring for a dog or cat, you prove to yourself and others that you are capable of taking care of yourself. Pets are also an excellent distraction from the challenges of recovery. If you have too much free time on your hands, you might be tempted to dwell on the past or to become overwhelmed by ruminations about the future. Pets require you to stay in the present, which helps you to stay grounded. Accepting the unconditional love of an animal can also help you overcome the feeling of shame for having developed an addiction. Pets know nothing of your past, the mistakes you’ve made or struggles you’ve faced – all they care about is you, right now!

Substance abuse impairs not only an individual’s mental health, but physical health as well. From cardiovascular damage to the dulling of motor skills, long-term abuse causes lasting side effects. Studies show that spending time with animals lowers blood pressure and slows the heart rate, which enhances cardiovascular function and produces a sense of calm to counteract feelings of anxiety or stress. Caring for a pet, such as walking a dog or playing with a cat, keeps you active and can improve your motor skills while simultaneously reducing stress. The human-animal interaction not only improves mood, but lowers cortisol, heart rate, and blood pressure as well.

Pets are not merely your companions. They require effort, commitment, and responsibility – just like your recovery does! Feeding, walking, and caring for your pet’s needs provides structure in your life as well as a sense of purpose. Two of the biggest predictors of relapse, stress and depression, can be alleviated through animal therapy. The accountability, responsibility, and sense of self-worth that you derive from your relationship with your pet will leave you feeling fulfilled, a major element in staying sober. Even on days when you’re tempted to hit snooze on your alarm, waking up to those tail wags, snuggles, and kisses make any sacrifice worthwhile!

And with shelter animals, it’s a double benefit: your companion saves you as you save your companion!

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