Animal-Assisted Therapy and Your Continuing Care

Mental Health Service dog and owner working together outdoors.
Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) describes any therapeutic method that involves using an animal in treatment. Researchers have known for decades that interacting with animals decreases stress, anxiety, and symptoms of depression. Recently AAT has become more popular. All types of animals are being used to help people overcome mental health and physical challenges related to substance use disorder (SUD). A few common animals you may encounter in AAT include:
  • Horses
  • Dogs
  • Fish
  • Birds
  • Rabbits and other small creatures
  • Cats
  • Llamas or alpacas
National and local organizations exist throughout America to offer services for people who want to use AAT to cope with unhealthy behaviors and emotional distress. On the Health site for the University of California, Los Angeles, they report that “humans interacting with animals have found that petting the animal promoted the release of serotonin, prolactin, and oxytocin — all hormones that can play a part in elevating moods.” They also list the following benefits:
  • Feelings of comfort and companionship
  • Decrease in anxiety
  • Helpful for individuals with memory issues
  • Enhances positive results of traditional therapy methods
  • Provides a healthy distraction 
  • Increased feelings of safety and motivation
  • Improvement of social behaviors 

Dual Diagnosis and Animal-Assisted Therapy 

A large percentage of individuals who undergo treatment for SUD have co-occurring mental health disorders. Animal-assisted therapy provides mood stabilization and increases positive results of other treatments like one-on-one therapy and support groups. A 2020 research paper published by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health on a study involving dogs and other animals concluded that a therapy “dog can be a multi-sensory stimulus that captures attention, and improves motivation, cooperation and patient involvement in therapy.”  A few of the co-occurring conditions AAT can treat include: 
  • Physical illness, injury, or disability like chronic pain
  • Mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Conditions that lead to interpersonal or communication difficulties 
Equine-assisted therapy is another popular option for individuals who have a dual diagnosis. You may benefit from taking time away from a traditional in-office therapy experience. Spending time in a controlled environment like a barn or stable can help you build trust and confidence. One 2016 study involving equine-assisted therapy for SUD found that interacting with a horse regularly provided the following:
  • Structure and routine
  • Increased self-confidence and a feeling of usefulness
  • Greater sense of self
  • Feelings of acceptance and greater ability to cope with challenges 
  • Motivation and sense of achievement 

The Different Types of Animal-Assisted Therapy

Most people are familiar with equine-assisted therapy and service animals, but a wide range of other AAT options exist. The animals may be included in typical psychotherapy sessions as a “co-therapist” to help you relax if you feel anxious or depressed. Other methods involve learning how to use a household pet to cope with overwhelming emotions and intrusive thoughts. A few of the different types of AAT include: 
  • Caring for large farm animals sometimes while taking part in outdoor talk therapy
  • Grooming or petting dogs, cats, or other smaller animals during in-office therapy sessions
  • Playing with pets at home as a form of stress relief and mood stabilization
Where to Find Animal-Assisted Therapy Where you live will play a significant role in how easily you can gain access to animal-assisted therapy. While you can always use programs to teach your current pets to provide certain rudimentary assistance with emotion and mood regulation, it may be necessary to find a local agency that offers the services of professionally trained animals. Online directories are often the easiest way to locate community-based AAT programs. You can also reach out to therapist offices and mental health organizations in your area. 

Is Animal Therapy Right for You?

If you have difficulty communicating with people, expressing yourself, trusting others, or do not enjoy spending therapy sessions in a typically closed office space, then you may benefit from alternatives like equine-assisted therapy. However, not everyone benefits from animal-assisted in the same way.  Anyone who feels anxious or scared around animals may do best with other alternatives like music or art therapy. Animal-assisted therapy may not be suitable for you if the following apply:
  • You have animal allergies
  • You do not have an emotional connection with animals
  • You have previous trauma related to animals 

Continuing Care and Alternative Therapies

Transitioning back into your everyday life after undergoing intensive treatment feels daunting for some people, and during the initial few months, anxiety and stress might increase. Before you complete your rehabilitation program, your case manager will help you determine the best way to continue your care by suggesting local organizations, therapists, and organizations. Animal-assisted therapy may be an option they consider. You can learn more about continuing care by visiting our Aftercare page.  Therapy involving animals has been around for thousands of years. Hippotherapy, a type of horse-assisted therapy, is named after an ancient Greek physician who recorded the benefits of using horse riding to treat some medical conditions. Animals are cute, cuddly, and approachable, making them perfect for helping people who feel anxious or disconnected from others. If you find it challenging to connect with a therapist, you may benefit from animal-assisted therapy. White House Recovery and Detox encourages the use of alternative treatments to enhance the positive results of traditional talk therapy. Most people feel safe around animals, and it is easier to learn goal-oriented skills when you have an animal care routine to follow. You can learn how to connect, trust, build confidence, and focus on the moment when you interact with animals. To learn more about alternative therapies, contact White House Recovery and Detox by calling us today at (800) 510-5393.