Pets In Recovery

R.H. Pfeiffer and Heather Spaur


People have heartrending stories when they reminisce with their collection of, “Susie Q was the best dog…” or “I adored my cat Sammy…” We all remember that fi rst neighborhood kitten that we petted or the big, puppy dog eyes begging us to love them from the ‘For Sale’ crate in the parking lot.

Pets were first kept by human beings as long as 12,000 years ago as guards and hunters. That role shifted in the 17th century to pleasure and companionship and in modern times, pets are treated as family members, with 62% of Americans owning pets. The role of pets, for some, has evolved into that of therapist and sober living companion. Dating as far back as the 1800’s, Florence Nightingale acknowledged that pets lowered the anxiety levels in her patients. More recently in the 1980’s, certification for therapy animals began, culminating into the two primary ways in which animals are commonly integrated into therapy today: pet therapy and animal-assisted therapy.

Pet therapy is a program in which trained pets visit facilities as a way to boost morale, while animal-assisted therapy is implemented by social workers, therapists, counselors, and other professionals by introducing animal interaction into their methods of treatment. According to Leslie Stewart, an Assistant Professor of Counseling at Idaho State University who helped develop the American Counseling Association’s competencies for conducting animal-assisted therapy, the term is greatly misused and misunderstood in both the industry and by the public. Animal assisted therapy has to be a goal-directed intervention that’s directly tied to a client’s treatment plan.

Pets help increase fitness levels, relieve stress, lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, boost overall happiness and well-being and provide social support. People in recovery can not only benefit from these attributes of loving pets, but also reduce stress, reduce anger, reduce anxiety, increase self-esteem, increase feelings of empowerment, increase trust, and improve social functioning. Interactions with animals can release serotonin and dopamine in a person much in the same way drugs like heroin and cocaine releases the same two chemicals, leading to pets helping people relax and ease cravings and withdrawals. After 20 minutes with a therapy dog, there is a significant drop in stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline, and aldosterone and an increase in health and social inducing hormones such as oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins.

These superhero pets can be great listeners, chilled companions and loneliness breakers in a sobering recovery world. They epitomize the presence of a higher power by adding a spiritual awareness and a wonderment of love. Recovering people feel that they can confide their fearless moral inventory of the fourth step with their non-judgmental companions, before risking it with a sponsor or counselor. These moments of acceptance form an internal dialogue of healing and personal secrecy with one of God’s creature who will never tell.

Having pets in therapy can help those in the recovering community to overcome their resistance to attending therapy, by making the process more appealing. Often, the positive feelings from bonding with pets in a therapeutic situation can transfer to the therapy, establishing a good relationship. A study by Seton Addictions Services found that patients opened up to counselors more about personal histories while dogs were present, allowing the counselors to gain insight to patients’ emotional and behavioral patterns. Interacting with animals builds understanding for healthy, nurturing relationships.

Animal-assisted therapy in all of its forms, improve the client’s perception of their relationship with their provider, which is extremely important because the client’s perception of the working relationship with the provider is the number one predictor of positive outcomes in any kind of psychotherapy.

There is a lot of emotional dysregulation or discomfort with experiencing and processing emotions with substance use disorders. Animals serve as role models for mindfulness about experiencing emotions in real time and while someone in recovery is relearning how to navigate the world of an emotional being.

When treating addiction, many mental health professionals turn to equine-assisted psychotherapy. Horses can be found initially intimidating because of their size, encouraging victims of trauma to take back their space, properly assess threat levels, and learn to feel comfortable in non-threatening situations. Hazelden Recovery Center in Minnesota introduced equine assisted rehab therapy in 2005 and according to the counselor who developed the program; the horses mirror human feelings making them a good therapeutic pet for patients who have lost all touch with emotion. The horses stir up joy, fear, sadness, anger, loneliness, resentment and peace. Interactions with horses builds relationship skills as they give immediate and honest feedback, a communication style that closely resembles that of humans.

To conquer the anger, shame and guilt of a relentless feeling disease, requires an honest inventory. With pride set aside, the recall of our memory is best in a non-judgmental setting, que or unconditionally-loving pets, whether it is pet therapy or animal assisted therapy.

R.H. Pfeiffer is the author of Trail of The Warrior. He believes the highest levels of truth are the lessons our lives express by the heart to each other as human spirts. We are the most powerful when we have a teaching that captures our voice as it heals. The world is only the visible aspect of God. Trail of the Warrior was written with the inspiration of a dog, the seeking of a restless soul for a higher power, and the love and support of colleagues. As a source of hope and healing for others, Trail of The Warrior captures the heart. Trail of the Warrior has been selected as a medalist in the 2018 Florida Authors and Publishers Association (FAPA) President’s Awards.

If you’re looking to understand pets in recovery give this book a try,