We’ve all seen service animals for the blind or people with PTSD, but did you know that animal therapy can be a useful tool in addiction recovery? It’s called Animal Assisted Therapy, or AAT, and it’s used in addition to an evidence-based practice in order to maximize the benefits of treatment. Animal-assisted therapy can include anything from horse riding to training a dog to be what we generally think of as a service animal, assisting patients with their daily lives.

During psychotherapy, a trained therapy animal is included in individual and group therapy meetings, and patients are able to interact with the animal during the sessions.

Studies have found that AAT is very effective with adults in residential addiction treatment programs and adolescents or young adults in inpatient settings. In one twelve-week study, three dogs were brought to an inpatient treatment facility to interact with the patients. When the dogs were present for therapy sessions, 56% of the participating individuals were more interactive and revealed information about their personal histories and substance abuse problems.

Part of the reason for the success of AAT is likely that it reduces stress and anxiety among the patients. Many substance abusers have issues with authority figures, but if they develop a bond with the therapy animal they become more likely to trust the therapists. Also, therapists are generally discouraged from physical contact with patients, since it can be seen as inappropriate, but contact with the therapy animal can provide much-needed comfort.

Animal Assisted TherapyIn addition to dogs, horses are frequently used as therapy animals. In fact, horse-assisted therapy, or HAT, is increasingly being used alongside more traditional programs. In addition to learning to ride a horse, there are a lot of skill-building opportunities, such as grooming or playing games, that can build the patient’s self-confidence. Data shows that 56.9 percent of HAT participants completed treatment as opposed to 14 percent of the baseline group. They also remained in treatment for longer, an average of 141 days versus 70, and had a significantly higher chance of completing their treatment than those not in the HAT program.

Other animals that may be used in therapy include cats, rats, rabbits, birds, pigs, and even llamas. Although no studies have been done to compare the effectiveness of any one animal versus another, they are believed to all have a similar impact.

In addition to the stress-reducing qualities of animals, they may also help patients stay in treatment longer. Too many substance abusers leave therapy before they’ve given it enough of a chance, but the presence of a bond with an animal might be enough to convince them to stick around.

Animal-assisted therapy should be conducted by someone who not only has the proper training in mental health and substance use disorders but who go for further training on how to deal with and best utilize the animal.

If you need help with drug or alcohol abuse, contact Asana Recovery. We have a medical detox as well as both residential and outpatient programs that provide education, counseling, and therapy. Call us at (949) 438-4504 to find out how we can help.