Animal Therapy in Recovery

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animal therapy

Animals have been known to perform miracles in emotional healing. After all, dogs are man’s best friend, right?

They are the most self-sacrificing species and we have formed such a special bond with them. The benefits of animal therapy are numerous, to say the least.

Animal therapy can offer significant healing, including support while working through trauma and learning to reconnect to emotions.


Animal Therapy for Substance Use 


Most people love dogs and cats and many even own their own pets at home. Sitting with an animal offers a sense of comfort, it’s no wonder therapeutic benefits have been experienced as a result.

Still, animal therapy doesn’t act alone. When dealing with substance use specifically, the recommendation is to use this modality as a supplement to more traditional therapeutic techniques.

Amazingly enough, many substance abuse treatment centers have integrated animal therapy, such as equine and wolf therapy, into their programs. Many find that the opportunity to explore emotions in the presence of these animals allows for a deeper sense of healing. 


Often, people suffering from addiction have no idea what the present moment is. In early addiction recovery, anxiety levels tend to skyrocket, creating a state of panic in which the sufferer is constantly obsessing about the past or worrying about the future.

Adding an animal to the mix can help relax the sufferer and promote general feelings of support and wellbeing. The experience can increase feelings of hope within recovery, ultimately decreasing the likelihood of relapse. Additionally, animal therapy can play a positive role in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Petting an animal provides a sense of grounding which is a foundational CBT technique.


Other Areas of Support


Animal therapy helps autistic kids learn how to communicate what they need or want as well. When they have tantrums or their energy is exerted, having a pet around can help them relax. It provides a soft reassuring outside entity that just wants love and attention and can redirect behaviors. This can help them develop further and experience significant progress in their treatment. 


Additionally, animal therapy helps kids that suffer from childhood neglect and/or trauma. A common experience that manifests as a result of childhood trauma involves feeling unloveable.

Typically, these children fear that because no one showed up to take proper care of them that this translates into them being unworthy of love. Animals offer a sense of unconditional love, creating a feeling of safety and support for individuals working through these experiences. 


Types of Animal Therapy


As animal therapy has become more and more popular in therapeutic settings, the types of animal therapy available have increased. Today, equine, dog, and wolf therapy are available in treatment centers for substance abuse.

Additionally, more and more pets are getting certified as emotional support animals or service animals for mental health support. Below, we will discuss some of the therapies available.


Equine therapy activities include:


  • Choosing a horse
  • Horse grooming  
  • Mounted work 
  • Walking or trotting 
  • Lunging 
  • Equine games


Dog therapy activities include:


  • Petting
  • Brushing
  • Positive obedience training 
  • Playing fetch 


Animal therapy can be a significant motivator. Often, the chance to spend time with an animal can be the highlight of the day.

When people get to spend time with animals in treatment, it’s even better because it breaks up the daily groups and routine, offering some excitement and something to look forward to. Spending time with animals is fun and provides a new form of connection to explore in recovery. 


Service Animals or Emotional Support Animals 


Most people have heard the term emotional support animal (ESA) or service animal. Typically, people think of dogs as the animal that most commonly plays this role.

Surprisingly enough, however, there are many different kinds of animals that can be certified as ESA’s or service animals. Believe it or not, a mini horse can be a service animal! Another important thing to note is that there is a big difference between an ESA and a service animal.



  • Service Animals have a specific job or duty to perform. Typically, to register an animal as a service animal, you need to obtain an approval letter from a medical professional. These animals are trained to stay hyper-aware of their owner. Job duties can range anywhere from providing psychiatric support to alerting the need for medical attention, such as insulin changes in the body. Service animals can also help their owners with mobility challenges. In these cases, dogs are extremely helpful and tend to be uniquely qualified for the job.
  • Emotional Support Animals’ sole purpose is to provide emotional support by being there for their owner. ESA’s don’t have as many privileges or rights as service dogs do. However, people suffering from mental health issues can experience significant benefits, simply by being in the presence of an animal. Not only do they offer companionship, but sitting with them and petting them can have a calming effect for those that struggle with anxiety or panic attacks.



When NOT to Seek Animal Therapy


While most people report positive experiences as a result of animal therapy, this modality is not for everyone. There are a number of factors that might deter someone from seeking animal therapy as a form of recovery. These factors include:


  • Fear or dislike of animals
  • Disinterest in working and spending time with animals
  • A history of harming animals
  • A history of trauma that involves animals
  • Animal allergies
  • Religious or cultural concerns involving animals. 


Seeking Emotional Support?


If you are struggling and need additional emotional support, Avalon Malibu is here to help. We are a licensed substance abuse and mental health treatment facility, committed to helping our clients heal. We work to create individualized recovery plans that allow our clients to better cope with life experiences. If you are having a tough time, you are not alone and support is available. Call us today for more information, at 844-857-5992.


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