5 ways pets can help people recover from addiction

5 ways pets can help people recover from addiction

James Bowen was a street musician struggling to kick his drug habit when he met a ginger stray he dubbed Bob. He recounted their relationship in this year’s best-selling memoir “A Street Cat Named Bob: And How He Saved My Life.” Through his bond with Bob, Bowen learned what specialists everywhere are realizing: Pets can help addicts through their recovery.

1. Pets love you unconditionally.

Building good personal relationships that you can turn to for support is one of the key ways addicts work through their addiction. But nobody said all these relationships needed to be with people!

Humans aren’t perfect. Some may be annoyed by your recovery, and others may mean well but say the wrong things. You needn’t worry about these problems with pets. They’ll always respond to your affection in kind, no matter what your mood or what kind of day they’ve had. Such a stable, reliable relationship can be so important for a recovering addict.

2. Pets help you have fun.

There’s not a lot that’s fun about recovering from addiction, but pets can help you see the lighter side of life. They encourage you to be playful, whether you’re tossing a ball in a park with a new pooch or dangling a piece of string for a kitten.

The positive influence of such naturally exuberant characters will soon get you smiling, because undertaking enjoyable activities raises the body’s levels of the same feel-good chemicals once elevated by drugs. These chemicals make you feel calm and relaxed, so they’re ideal for tackling cravings.

“People take drugs like heroin and cocaine to raise serotonin and dopamine, but the healthy way to do it is to pet your dog, hug your spouse, watch sunsets or get around something beautiful in nature,” explained Blair Justice, a psychology professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health. 

3. Pets encourage you to be more responsible.

We all know pet ownership is a big responsibility, and that can be scary for an addict, as James Bowen wrote in his book.

“The last thing I needed right now was the extra responsibility of a cat. I was a failed musician and recovering drug addict living a hand-to-mouth existence in sheltered accommodation. Taking responsibility for myself was hard enough,” he reasoned. Yet he did adopt Bob, and he found that the responsibility the cat demanded gave him the discipline he needed to beat his addiction.

Being more responsible can help addicts repair old wounds. Addicts often judge themselves on their failings of the past, believing that they are as untrustworthy and worthless as they once seemed. Becoming a responsible pet owner can challenge these notions and help addicts heal.

4. Pets hold you accountable.

Pets can’t communicate with words the way human supporters can, but actor Chris Klein insists that they can communicate in other ways that help addicts stay accountable for their behavior. He told People magazine that his German shepherd Chief was pivotal in recovering from alcohol addiction.

“He began to recognize the behavior shift in me when [I drank] alcohol, and his behavior would change,” he recalled. “Anybody that has a meaningful relationship with a dog will understand that the disappointment that I saw in his eyes, [it was] insurmountable.”

Unlike many people in support circle, pets are always there. You’re never alone with your addiction, and if you slip, they’ll know it.

5. Pets ease your stress.

Stress and addiction affect the brain in similar ways, so battling one generally means battling the other. The stresses of life can trigger cravings or a relapse, so it’s vital to keep calm. Getting close to a pet is a great way to combat stress.

A British survey found that more than half of all dog owners were more relaxed after spending time with their pet. Forty-four percent — the same number who reported worrying less about their problems — said they felt more positive about life.

But it’s not just dogs that can make their owners feel good. The soft fur of a cat or rabbit, the smooth scales of a snake or lizard, or the feathers of a loving parrot all feel wonderful to touch. Stroking and cuddling a pet helps you calm down quickly by lowering your pulse and heart rate.
James Bowen credits his faithful feline companion with saving his life. Could a pet save yours?