Pet Therapy Helps Addiction Survivors Reclaim Their Lives

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As the opioid crisis in America reaches an all-time high, and alcoholism still remains as one of the leading causes of preventable death, some rehabilitative clinics are turning to man’s best friend to make a difference.

Drug abuse and addiction is a national crisis, and more Americans than ever are suffering from the devastating effects of drug addiction. The good news is that more awareness of the issue seems to be happening as well. In addition, people are working diligently to help those in active addiction recover their lives and become substance use-free. Many rehabilitative programs can be attributed for this support.

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Now, some innovative rehabilitative programs are even utilizing therapy dogs to help patients learn to battle their addiction triggers differently. As substance abuse alters the structure and chemistry of the brain, part of rehabilitation means that clinicians work with the neuroplasticity of one’s brain to help them to respond differently to situations that may trigger them to use or abuse substances. Various therapies work on this neuroplasticity and retraining of the brain, and pet therapy is becoming a popular therapy type to do so.

As rehabilitation patients interact with dogs, their levels of dopamine, or the ‘happy hormone,’ and oxytocin, the ‘love hormone,’ increase. Because substance use typically alters the dopamine receptors in one’s brain, they’re more susceptible to turn to substances to help get those feelings back. But instead, interactions with dogs can train their brain to seek that dopamine increase from their furry friends and teach them new ways to fight old addictions.

We spoke with Jim Zuravnsky, who is the CEO at the Sunrise House Treatment Center, part of the American Addiction Centers network. He says that pet therapy is becoming more popular as a substance-abuse therapy for many different reasons. Because we’ve already seen so many positive health benefits in hospital and long-term care settings for patients with everything from diabetes to PTSD, the benefits of pets to humans is not unnoticed and continues to be more well-known. While it’s not necessarily mainstream yet, as more benefits of pet therapy continue to come out, he guesses pet therapy may become standard in many substance abuse situations.

At Sunrise House specifically, Zuravnsky says that the comfort pets bring to their patients acts as motivation for them to be reinvigorated about their treatment. The pets help them to feel positive about reclaiming their life and moving forward from substance abuse. In a program that started earlier this year at Sunrise House, every other weekend a Great Dane and a Golden Retriever become therapists and allow patients to interact with them and share their lives. Jim says that often patients will disclose information to the dogs that they’ve not even told their human therapists, and they feel like they’ve got furry cheerleaders supporting them to continue to take steps toward sobriety.

The pet therapy program is wildly popular, and implementing it at all the American Addiction Centers is an idea that’s being explored because of its success.

Related: How Pets Help with Depression

Jim believes that keeping pet therapy a growing and effective therapy option is essential and needs more awareness for its viability. Sunrise House plans to continue using and growing their program, sharing the very verifiable and scientific proof that shows the benefits of animal-assisted therapy in various situations.

Pet therapy can help patients not only recover from substance abuse but have better mental balance and prevent future relapse. Bringing pets into substance abuse therapy helps bridge gaps in communication someone recovering from addiction may feel, and can bring them back to the present where they can focus on taking care of themselves and living the lives they were meant to live.

Just one more reason dogs make the world go ’round.