Animal-assisted therapy involves exposure to and care of animals within a larger addiction treatment program. Studies have shown that animals can play a significant role in improving mental health and having a pet has been found to improve the recovery process by promoting empathy, allowing a person to connect with others, and strengthening a sense of empowerment. Animals can also serve as close friends or members of the family and AAT can reduce feelings of isolation and depression, which also helps people achieve long-term sobriety.
Depending on the nature of therapy and the type of animal involved, patients may keep a dog, a cat, or other pet at home or at their side throughout the day for emotional support. They might also learn to ride and care for a therapy horse at an equestrian school. Patients may discuss their animals with their therapists while they are working with them, or they might schedule a specific time to talk about their experiences. Patients in a hospital or a nursing home may not have a psychotherapist, but volunteers with trainer therapy pets might visit them.
Animals can have a calming effect on a person and they can provide a sense of comfort and safety, while also diverting attention from stressful situations. Advocates of AAT say that having a bond with an animal can help someone develop a better sense of self-worth and trust, as well as stabilize their emotions and improve their communication and social skills.
AAT usually serves in conjunction with traditional work done by a psychotherapist or a social worker. Dogs are the most common animals used in AAT, but, depending on each patient’s emotional and physical needs, a variety of other animals can be used.