How Animal Therapy Can Treat Substance Abuse Disorder

Animal therapy with dogs or horses may offer those with substance abuse disorder better relapse resistance, improved detox and faster recovery.

According to partners of Foundations Recovery Network, pet or animal therapy for treating mental health disorders in substance abusers may make avoiding relapse a lot easier for sufferers of both, or substance abusers with mental symptoms of depression and anxiety during detox and recovery. Communities with stables and similar resources have the potential to create public private partnerships connecting local detox and psychotherapy programs to animal therapy opportunities.

Animal therapy for addiction treatment is based on the biophilia hypothesis, the belief that because human beings once relied on animal signals as a means of survival, biofeedback that comes from working with animals triggers positive outcomes during detox and psychotherapy treatment. Both dogs and horses are used in animal therapy for recovering from addiction to opioids and other substances.

“While some recovering individuals may not necessarily have full-blown mental health disorders, they might suffer with feelings of failure and loneliness when they have hit rock bottom and decide to seek help,” according to a partner’s article on Pet Therapy in Rehab. Here’s why it works.

Canine Animal Therapy

A calm animal can trigger a relaxed mood in a person, and that can help a person with substance abuse disorder during detox. It may also help open up conversation during psychotherpay sessions.

In one 12-week study of 56 substance abusers, 64 percent “seemed to achieve the primary goal of actively participating in an event that provided some enjoyment or nurturing for them,” while 56 percent opened up about their past and their substance abuse habits to therapists when therapy dogs were present.

Canine physical activity needs also help recovering substance abusers get exercise, which is usually recommended by treatment practitioners.

A dog’s companionship may also reduce feelings of anxiety or loneliness that can trigger relapse. In one canine therapy study of 55 students, rates of anxiety and loneliness dropped by 60 percent.

Therapy dogs are also recommended post treatment, since relapse rates for substance abuse disorder average between 40 and 60 percent. An ongoing relationship with a dog may increase resistance toward relapse.

Animal Therapy with Horses

Working with horses or equine therapy can give a person with substance abuse disorder greater insight into how to make personal motivation changes by learning skills essential to recovery, such as being present and honest, managing emotions and being assertive in setting limits.

Equine therapy treatment is going through a series of predefined tasks with a trained horse and a licensed therapist. Since the patient’s focus is on the task with the horse, it allows him or her to interact with a therapist in a non-judgmental way. Work with horses also requires respect. Intimidation, bargaining, threats or coercion are ineffective in having a horse complete a task, so any such habits are rendered ineffective.

“Instead, people must deal with a horse using patience and a relaxed manner,” according to an article on Animals in Therapy.

Trust is required in building a relationship with a horse. Practitioners find that those with substance abuse disorder that are withdrawn and predisposed to mistrusting others -- due to weak peer relationships and betrayals -- can be reached through equine therapy.

Gateway HorseWorks of Pennsylvania, which offers equine therapy programs for addiction treatment, is a partner of the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA). The seminal equine therapy organization researches how horse response provides more effective feedback than traditional psychotherapy alone.

A client may say, ‘This horse is stubborn. That horse doesn’t like me,’ etc. The lesson is that by changing ourselves, the horses respond differently. They provide this immediate feedback to real changes that we make,” according to EAGALA.

Another benefit of animal therapy with horses is improved mind-body connection and better control over thoughts, or cravings. When people struggle with cravings, their body language may say distracted or angry. Those with substance abuse are usually unaware that their cravings are visible to others. By working with a horse that does not respond to a command, the therapist will ask the person to assess his or her physical posture and think about what is causing it. The exercise specific to equine psychotherapy has been shown to teach recovering addicts how to identify and have better control over their thoughts and cravings.

Working with horses and other animals has also been shown to slow heart rates and increase feelings of calm, which is helpful for anxiety and other stressors that comes with detox and recovery.

Andrea Fox is Editor of and Senior Editor at Lexipol. She is based in Massachusetts.