Pets in Treatment: A Residential Program Finds a New Dimension of Healing When Clients Stay with Their Animals

By Corbitt, Shari | Addiction Professional, May-June 2009 | Go to article overview

Pets in Treatment: A Residential Program Finds a New Dimension of Healing When Clients Stay with Their Animals


Corbitt, Shari, Addiction Professional


Many people were touched this year by actor Mickey Rourke's Golden Globe award acceptance speech, in which he thanked his dogs for always being there for him. Rourke later spoke about how his pets had saved his life. Feeling suicidal, he realized his pets needed him, and that thought drove him to find help. The strong feeling that many of us have for our pets can play a vital part in the process of healing.

Animal companions have long been known to soothe their human guardians. Everything from anxiety and depression to high blood pressure can be ameliorated to some degree by a pet's unconditional loving companionship. Given the essential component of stress management for any long-term addiction recovery program, a recent study from the University of Cambridge Department of Veterinary Medicine is enlightening. Researchers found that pet owners reported a highly significant reduction in minor health problems during the first month following pet acquisition, and this effect was sustained in dog owners for up to 10 months. In addition, dog owners got considerably more physical exercise (while walking their dogs) than did those without pets.

The results of this research provide evidence that pet acquisition could have positive effects on human health and behavior, and that in some cases these effects are relatively long-term. Both the short-and long-term effects demonstrated in this study suggest the important role pet ownership may play in supporting a recovering person's well-being.

So it should come as no surprise that this relationship would find itself incorporated into the residential treatment setting, particularly in an environment that serves clients with multiple diagnoses in addition to a substance use disorder. Often, as many admissions department staff members know, leaving a pet behind might pose a barrier to a potential clients entering residential treatment. Bringing a pet to treatment would lessen the anxiety of leaving home and entering a situation that for many amounts to unknown territory. Allowing a pet to come to treatment could in essence be the determining factor that might save someone's life.

A pet-friendly facility

In an effort to support our clients' desire to remain close with their pets while in treatment, TouchStone Treatment Center in Agoura Hills, California allows just that. Cats, dogs, fish and reptiles are all welcome in the residential setting. Multiple pets are also allowed, and there is no size restriction on dogs. The culture that is subsequently created is one of responsibility and accountability, and one that also facilitates the warmth that animals bring to the environment.

The therapeutic rationale related to allowing pets has two elements. First, in addition to the health benefits already discussed, the responsibility of daily pet care constitutes a beginning step for many clients toward regaining their sense of maturity in the world. For many, the basic autonomy of adulthood has been stripped during a period of mental health crisis and of experiencing the consequences of behavior related to addictive disorders. Therefore, it can serve as a wonderful beginning to experience the rewards of re-establishing a caring relationship with one's pet. For some, this is a very important hallmark of the return to healthy living.

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The second area of therapeutic importance for clients and their animal companions is related to shame reduction. Many clients hold tremendous shame regarding the manner in which they neglected, and in some cases abused, their pets while they were either too depressed, anxious or under the influence to properly attend to them. The simple act of providing love and attention to a pet in early recovery can unleash tremendous grief and shame related to past behaviors. The resulting therapeutic material allows for processing and resolution of these issues. …

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Pets in Treatment: A Residential Program Finds a New Dimension of Healing When Clients Stay with Their Animals
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