If you’re one of the millions of people who enjoy feel-good stories on social media, you might have heard of Street Cat Bob, the legendary London cat that helped pull his human, James Bowen, out of a life of drugs. In the 2010s, Bob and James’s story was the subject of
If you’re one of the millions of people who enjoy feel-good stories on social media, you might have heard of Street Cat Bob, the legendary London cat that helped pull his human, James Bowen, out of a life of drugs. In the 2010s, Bob and James’s story was the subject of a popular Facebook page as well a bestselling autobiography and a successful motion picture.
A little over a year after Bob’s death in June 2020, a life-size statue of Bob was unveiled in London. Speaking to the BBC, James said: “My hope is that when people visit Bob’s statue, or as they simply pass by, that they will take a moment to remember that everyone deserves a second chance and that no one is alone.”
The worldwide appeal of Bob and James’s story seems to have resonated with millions of people struggling with substance use disorder (SUD) and other mental health issues. Theirs is hardly the only story out there of someone with drug or alcohol problems finding strength in the companionship of someone who wasn’t human.
These cases have driven a fair amount of interest in the practice of using animals to improve and maintain mental health. Here, we’ll look into how animals may help some individuals recover from SUD. Call our team at Boston Drug Treatment Centers to find treatment programs in New England that offer animal-assisted therapy.
Animal-assisted therapy (AAT), sometimes called “pet therapy”, is a type of complementary therapy used alongside mainstream psychiatric treatments that involves the use of animals, usually as emotional support to help manage a known mental health issue.1,2 AAT can be classified any number of ways, including the species of animal, the specific application, or the health condition of the recovering individual.
In the US, dogs, horses, and cats are the types of animals most frequently associated with AAT, though birds, fish, turtles, ferrets, pigs, rabbits, hamsters, and other species have also been employed as well.3
Numerous studies have been done on AAT over the decades that have confirmed both subjective benefits in self-reported positive mood changes as well as objective improvements in blood pressure and hormone levels. 1,2,4,5
In the context of SUD treatment, AAT can be in the form of pet ownership as endorsed by a qualified therapist or through periodic access to animal companions, as might be the case for individuals in a residential facility.
In different metastudies, animal companions have been shown to provide some benefits for people recovering from SUD and common co-morbid mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress. 1,2,4,5,6,7
Some specific benefits of AAT for people with SUD include:
Better empathy is crucial for allowing recovering individuals to reintegrate into society. It can be a major predictor of success in personal and professional relationships, both of which are also important for the morale of recovering individuals. Studies on adolescents and adults with SUD have shown that animal companions offer a healthy way to practice empathy and communication.5,6 As animals do not communicate in the same way as people, study participants found themselves actively exercising empathy, which, in turn, had benefits for them when it came to communicating and socializing with other humans later in recovery.6
Multiple studies point to animal companions as beneficial for improving participants’ abilities to commit to their recovery.1,2,4,5 Recovering individuals often feel a sense of responsibility for their animal companions that further motivates them to continue with treatment, a motivation that is largely absent in control groups that do not receive AAT.4,5,7 This makes AAT something to seriously consider after completing residential SUD treatment, as animal companions may provide some of the external motivation many individuals find crucial to continue treatment.
While most people who have owned pets or lived around animals probably knew this already, there is plenty of science to confirm this idea.1,2,7 People recovering from long-term drug and alcohol use often find themselves more irritable and anxious. This anxiety may also cause maladaptive coping behaviors and a potential relapse.7 Animal companions have been shown in multiple studies to help reduce general anxiety symptoms, something that may be especially beneficial in the early part of SUD recovery.1,2,7
Traumatic events can trigger substance misuse, which can contribute to an SUD. In different studies of adults and adolescents with SUD and co-occurring mental health conditions, animal companions have been shown to be highly effective at alleviating symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.2,4,5 This improvement often led to a better quality of life and more involvement in the treatment process, both of which influenced recovering individuals’ odds of long-term recovery.2,7
If you’re interested in trying out animal-assisted therapy for yourself or a loved one in recovery, make sure to get in touch with a qualified mental health professional first to see if AAT is right for you. If you’re in Massachusetts, you can call our team at Boston Drug Treatment Centers at (857) 577-8193 to find SUD treatment programs and specialists that offer AAT throughout Greater Boston.