Who doesn’t love spending time with their favorite fluffy friends? There’s nothing quite like relaxing with a dog or a cat on your lap and feeling their warmth and love flow through you. Perhaps that’s why recreational animal therapy has been making a major impact on the world of addiction treatment.
This simple concept has been used for years in various therapeutic methods and offers a wide range of tested and approved benefits. Though it can’t be used as a singular treatment, it has its own unique qualities that makes it more than useful as an alternative or supplemental treatment. If you’re an animal lover going through a rough patch with addiction, you deserve to know about this therapy.
What Is Recreational Animal Therapy?
Recreational animal therapy is the use of friendly animals (typically dogs or cats, but other ones can be used) to help alleviate a person’s suffering. The animal either visits with the person or lives at the center where they are staying. Each session, the person interacts with the animal in a relaxing and comfortable manner. The goals of recreational animal therapy vary depending on the circumstance.
For example, it has been used to help improve fine motor skills in people who have suffered from a stroke or other debilitating conditions. It is especially useful for children, as most typically love interacting with animals. However, recreational animal therapy is also useful for treating many mental health and behavioral problems.
The thing that we really love about recreational animal therapy is that it brings something new and exciting into the lives of people who are trying to recover from addiction. Seeing the friendly wag of a tail and hearing an excited bark often brings color back into their cheeks and a spring to their step. We’ve noticed the following (proven) benefits in people who we’ve seen go through recreational animal therapy.
Recreational Animal Therapy Offers Multiple Physical Health Benefits
When you’ve suffered through addiction for any length of time, your body is impacted by multiple physical health concerns, such as malnutrition or possibly a loss of muscle mass and bone density. However, recreational animal therapy is a beneficial treatment that can be integrated into any physical health recovery routine.
Paws For People, a non-profit organization promoting pet therapy, reports that recreational animal therapy offers the following physical health benefits:
- Decreased blood pressure
- Better heart health
- Decreased physical pain
- Better motor skills
- Boosted flexibility
- Increased joint health
How in the world does interacting with an animal offer all these benefits? Much of it has to do with the pleasing physical sensation created by petting and connecting with them. As you pet an animal and enjoy spending time with it, your body releases endorphins. These help increase your mood, decrease excessive heart rate, calm your blood pressure and work neglected joints.
Endorphins are also a natural painkiller, meaning that much (but not all) of your pain can be relieved by simply enjoying some time with an animal. These benefits only increase if you play with the animal, such as throwing a ball to play fetch with a dog or dangling a string for a cat. As the animal’s goofy behavior makes you smile, you’ll find your pain melting away.
Animals Can Soothe Anxiety
Pet owners often turn to their buddies as an escape from the anxieties of the world. The calm eyes and uncompromising love that comes from a typical pet cannot be replicated in any other way. A pet doesn’t judge you for your addiction or try to guilt you into quitting. They simply accept who you are and love you no matter what. But can pet therapy truly relax anxiety or is it just a placebo effect?
In a study written by Dr. Sandra B. Barker and Dr. Kathryn S. Dawson entitled “The Effects of Animal-Assisted Therapy on Anxiety Ratings of Hospitalized Psychiatric Patients,” the anti-anxiety effects of animal therapy were tested in a clinical setting. They balanced a control group of people who did not received animal therapy with the tested group of people who did.
“Animal-assisted therapy was associated with reduced state anxiety levels for hospitalized patients with a variety of psychiatric diagnoses, while a routine therapeutic recreation session was associated with reduced levels only for patients with mood disorders.”
So recreational animal therapy not only reduced anxiety levels in people with multiple types of problems (including addiction), but it was actually more effective than typical recreation sessions. These findings are astounding and seem to offer a world of treatment opportunities for people suffering from addiction.
Imagine a world where people in a rehab center could walk up to a community dog and pet it to calm their anxieties or beat their relapse cravings. The possibilities are almost endless and should be investigated in more depth. This is especially true of people who are prescribed anti-anxiety medicines that they may not need.
Socialization Goes Up, Too
Another major benefit of recreational therapy is the way in which it boosts the socialization skills of those in recovery. The study “Animal-Assisted Therapy Enhances Resident Social Interaction and Initiation in Long-Term Care Facilities,” published in Volume 13, Issue 4 of Anthrozoös, gauged the effect that recreational animal therapy had on people in long-term care facilities. Though they were testing people who were suffering from severe physical problems, the care emulated that which would be received in rehab.
The purpose of the study was to see if people who participated in animal therapy would increase their socialization through their interaction with animals. The results were overwhelmingly positive and the study found that therapy involving petting animals “…added significantly to resident engagement in, and initiation of, this behavior.”
It also helped engage residents in discussing and playing with the animals in a way that typical board games and bingo did not. The benefits here to someone in recovery are obvious. The isolation and antisocial behavior bred by addiction can be eliminated by the focused and friendly interaction with animals. As they pet their therapy animal and meet new people, they’re likely to open up, share their emotions and become more active in the center’s social life.
Animals Are Empathetic
Treatment animals are chosen very carefully for their abilities to show empathy. Dogs are particularly empathetic toward humans, giving them a great deal of attention and love when they are depressed or anxious. Though this fact has been debated through the ages, with many people saying animals can’t feel empathy, Dr. Stanley Coren disagrees.
Coren wrote an article for Psychology Today that examined canine empathy. He acknowledges that all dog owners BELIEVE that their dog has empathy, but that many experts believe that dogs suffer more from “emotional contagion,” a situation in which they are affected by their owner’s emotions, but don’t understand the emotion. As a result, they grow confused and try to interact with the owner, rather than try to comfort them.
In one study, Coren reports, a dog and its owner were paired with a stranger the dog had never met. Both the owner and the stranger were asked to behave in an upset manner by crying. If the dog was simply reacting to its owner’s emotions, it would only go to him and ignore the stranger. However, the dog actually went to both people and interacted with them, as if trying to comfort them.
The conclusion reached by the study was that dogs felt more advanced forms of empathy than initially believed. This level of empathy is crucial for people in addiction recovery. Often, it is easy to feel isolated, alone, ignored and marginalized. A good animal therapy dog will see that you are upset and do what it can to make you feel better.
Don’t be surprised to see a friendly canine press its nose into your hands and try to lick your face. It might even whine or lay at your feet, inviting a good, brisk petting. Petting the dog will help bring a smile to your face and alleviate much of your depression, anxiety and feelings of isolation.
Typical Treatment Method
Recreational animal therapy is typically performed by a trained handler who brings the animal to a rehab center. Once here, the pet is taken from person to person and given a few moments to interact with each of them. This gives everyone in the facility the chance to connect with the animal in a friendly manner. People who don’t want to participate aren’t pressured or forced. Often, those who aren’t interested in partaking in animal therapy are either afraid of animals or simply allergic.
Patients are also paired with animals according to their preference and their past history with animals. So if you love cats but are afraid of dogs, you can specify having a feline friend. However, if you have a history of behaving angrily or even cruelly towards animals, you are not unlikely to be approved for this treatment. Thankfully, you’re likely not reading this if you hate animals, so you’ll probably do just fine with animal therapy.
Your time with the recovery animal can be spent any way you’d like. Take a walk with them on the premises of the rehab center or play a game of fetch. You can even watch television with them while they lounge on your lap. The purpose of this therapy is to give you an outlet for your pain and anxiety and to create a more thoughtful and healthy mindset.
Recreational Animal Therapy Can Help You
The benefits of recreational animal therapy are real and can contribute to a healthy and healing rehabilitation environment. To learn more about how it can help you, please contact us at TreehouseRehab.org. We are experts in various holistic and alternative recovery methods and can give you the guidance you need to beat your addiction.