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Holistic Addiction Treatment: Animal Therapy

For centuries, companion animals benefited people by simply just being there. It was not until the early 1900’s that people realized the true benefits of using animals in a variety of treatments. Today, Animal therapy is used to treat addiction to drugs or alcohol as well as many of the repercussions that come as a result of addiction. This therapy is often used as a source of helping addicts to rebuild trust, reduce anxiety and improve attitudes toward the restoration of daily routines and activities.

What is Animal Assisted Therapy?

animal assisted addiction treatment

Animal therapy helps people recover from and overcome addiction.

After World War II, doctors and handlers began training guide dog to assist soldiers blinded in the war. They discovered early on that just the presence of animals calmed the soldiers and eased their anxiety. Since then the concept of animal therapy has grown considerably. Treatment professionals use animals in a variety of treatment programs including helping people overcome their addictions. The concept might seem strange at first, but after looking at what animal therapy is and how it works, you can see the benefits that specially trained animals provide for addicts in recovery.

Animal assisted therapy is many things. The practice of using animals in therapy is certainly not a new one. According to the National Library of Medicine’s article “The Psychiatric Aspects of Animal Assisted Therapy,” animals have a positive effect on those recovering from a variety of psychiatric and addiction disorders. The powerful bond that exists between humans and animal offers comfort and emotional support to those suffering from the two most common symptoms of drug addiction, anxiety and depression. Animal assisted therapy is the process of using a companion or farm animal to alleviate certain issues related to withdrawal and addiction in general. Doctors, counselors, and animal behaviorists agree that animal therapy has a tremendous benefit to those suffering from the symptoms of withdrawal.

Forms of Animal Therapy

Animal assisted therapy takes several forms. As research continues, scientists and psychologist find new ways of using animals to benefit people suffering from addiction as well as other mental and emotional conditions. A few of these forms are:

  • Companion animal therapy – In companion animal therapy the animal resides with the person and provides emotional support to the addict. The animal provides unconditional love and support as well as acting as a calming influence during cravings and anxiety attacks.
  • Farm therapy – working on a farm takes patience, caring, and hard work. It is suggested that the act of tending, raising, and interacting with farm animals is helpful for recovering addicts. The work involved on a farm serves as a form of exercise and a distraction. The farms, which desperately need volunteers benefit from the work that the recovering addicts do.
  • Equine animal therapy – This involves using horses to assist addicts. According to Professional Therapeutic Horsemanship International’s publication, “The Bond that Heals,” therapy with horses is beneficial to both the person suffering and the horse. There are a few types of equine therapy.
  • Riding therapy – horseback riding is relaxing and comforting to most people. Riding is a form of exercise and the trust bond between human and horse is well documented.
  • Grooming therapy – the act of grooming a horse eases anxiety and occupies the mind of the addict.
  • Rescue ranch therapy – in this type of therapy a rescued horse with special needs is paired with an addict. Caring and providing companionship to a horse that was abandoned helps the addict realize that he or she is not alone.
  • Dolphin therapy – as a part of a swimming program teaching the basics of dolphins and dolphin care benefits people with emotional and mental disturbances. This includes many of the secondary conditions of addiction.
  • Inpatient animal therapy – this form of therapy uses any type of animal in an inpatient setting. Some people in the program are given animals to raise, on their own as a part of their recovery. Others have animals that visit them on a regular basis providing love and companionship for a short time.

Types of Therapy Animals and How they Assist in Addiction Recovery

Almost any animal is useful for addiction therapy. Animals help with a wide range of social, physical and emotional problems. These animals come from all areas including rescues, breeders, farms, and private homes. The types of animals normally used for addiction therapy may include:

  • Dogs – these are the most popular animals for therapy. Dogs are very useful because they are easy to train and very loving.
  • Cats – make good companions because they are willing to sit for endless hours and be petted. They also do not generally respond to anxiety.
  • Reptiles – although most people do not immediately think of reptiles for therapy, the care reptiles require is often an incentive from a therapeutic standpoint. In addition, people who do not get along with warm and fuzzy animals often bond with reptiles.
  • Ferrets – these furry slinkys require an extensive amount of care and attention. In return, they supply endless amounts of amusement and love. Ferrets are known for helping to relieve the symptoms of depression. As most therapy ferret owners say, “You can’t possible watch these guys for more than a few minutes and not laugh.”
  • Rats and mice – again rodents do not seem like the typical therapy animals. People often overlook their intelligence and cuddly nature. In the case where a user cannot have a larger animal or is in a residential facility, small animals can be just as helpful as the larger ones.
  • Sugar gliders – again people should not discount these as therapy animals because of their size. A sugar glider bonds to a person as their “tree,” the person becomes their home, their provider, and their companion. They can teach addicts both responsibility and provide companionship.
  • Dolphins – dolphins are relatively new in the world of addiction therapy. Dolphins are intelligent compassionate creatures. They respond well to human interaction and can often tell when someone is upset, anxious, or ill. Combine this with swimming and exercise in the water and you have a very good therapeutic approach.
  • Horses and other farm animals – horses are well established in the therapy community. Working on a farm and caring for farm animals provides distraction, companionship, exercise, and a sense of purpose for a recovering addict.
  • Parrots and other avian species – birds were companions to people since the middle ages. Their intelligence, personalities, and ability to bond all make them perfect therapy animals.

Any animal that a human bonds with can be useful in guided animal assisted therapy.

Who Does Animal Assisted Therapy Help?

Animal assisted therapy works for anyone who is experiencing the mental and emotional stressors of withdrawal or the after-effects of drug or alcohol use. Such withdrawal effects, many of which can be reduced through animal therapy, include:

  • intense cravings,
  • difficulty concentrating,
  • high blood pressure,
  • increased stress,
  • depression,
  • anxiety,
  • rapid changes in mood, and
  • feelings of desperation.

Contact with a nonhuman species lessens many of these symptoms. Several studies show that animals benefit humans in more than just work. They provide love, distraction, and help an addict to feel less alone in the world.

How Do Animals Help People in Addiction Recovery?

The amount of rehab facilities that use animals to help patient recovery is gradually increasing as more doctors and therapist see the benefits of animal assisted therapy. This is because animals:

  • help people focus on problems other than their own,
  • turn the addicts attention to something besides acquiring and using their substance of choice,
  • act as a calming influence to those who are anxious,
  • can help improve motor skills in those who suffer from tremors due to their addiction,
  • are known to lower heart rate and blood pressure,
  • increase focus,
  • are good for depression and depressive illnesses,
  • can increase attention and help people to focus,
  • can increase wiliness to participate in counseling and other group activities,
  • teach greater self control and self esteem,
  • can encourage their handlers to exercise,
  • can reduce anxiety, calm phobias, and
  • help to relieve stress.

There are many more uses for animals in a therapy setting. Because they are living creatures with personalities of their own, it is not unusual for the therapy animals to design a therapy by themselves. Some animals seem to instinctively know what the subject needs from them and play to that role.

Matching Animal Assisted Therapy with a Recovering Addict

When the animal therapy is just a short visit, almost any animal with a gentle loving personality will do. These often specially trained dogs visit patients in the hospital or in a residential facility. The animal visits each patient who is in need and spends some time with the patient. In short visits there is less of a need to find a good match between patient and animal because there is very little bonding time.

The match between animal and human must be right in order for the long term therapy to work. If a person loves dogs, it is not a good idea to conduct therapy with cats. If a person prefers birds then a dog would not be a good idea. By matching the therapy animal to the patient, the program is much more likely to be a success.

Where Do Therapy Animals Come From?

Therapy animals come from one of three places. They come from breeders, rescues, and sanctuaries.

  • Breeders – the breeders of therapy animals breed them for a certain temperament. Once the babies reach a certain age, a trainer evaluates them for temperament and overall compatibility. Then they take the animal to be raised by someone who is specializes in training therapy animals. If at any point during this process the animal shows aggression or other undesired tendencies, they are immediately retired. At around 18 months they are placed with either a patient or a family who provides therapy visits.
  • Rescues – therapy dog trainers often frequent rescues and sanctuaries to find animals who are suitable for therapy training. They then adopt the animal and train them for specific tasks. In the case of therapy, they are give obedience and citizenship training. Once the animal is trained, they are placed with either a patient or a person who does therapy visits.
  • Family pets – some family pets make suitable therapy dogs. A family who wants to do therapy visits with their pet can apply to one of the many organizations that provide therapy training. The dog and family are trained to the situations that the pet will be placed in.

In the case of addiction recovery, the animals are more likely to come from a rescue or a family than they are from a breeder. There is something about an animal that was rescued from a bad circumstance that is particularly good for recovering addicts. The bond between a rescue animal and a recovering addict seems to be stronger than that of an animal that comes from a breeder. Recovering addicts tend to view the animal as something that has had a hard time in life already and will do their best to make the animals life better while they are making their own better.

Counselors and therapists also use handicapped animals for addiction recovery. Overcoming adversity is often a common bond between the therapy animal and the person recovering from addiction. This creates a mutual need between addict and animal.

Why Choose Animal Therapy?

There are as many types of animal therapy as there are human therapies. Animals provide everything from love to a reason to exercise. Each animal is as different as each addict. The companionship they provide is unparalleled in human interaction. Animal therapy is a proven technique for helping recovering addicts deal with the responsibilities of being sober and a member of society. They allow a traumatized or anxious individual to rejoin the ranks of working society by providing much needed care and incentive. The range of animals therapists use is as wide as the range of people who are recovering addicts. An animal that fits with its human can open doors that recovering addicts would not normally be able to see.

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