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Pets in Treatment

May 1, 2009
by Shari Corbitt, PhD
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A residential program finds a new dimension of healing when clients stay with their animals

Many people were touched this year by actor Mickey Rourke's Golden Globe award acceptance speech, in which he thanked his dogs for always being there for him. Rourke later spoke about how his pets had saved his life. Feeling suicidal, he realized his pets needed him, and that thought drove him to find help. The strong feelings that many of us have for our pets can play a vital part in the process of healing.

Animal companions have long been known to soothe their human guardians. Everything from anxiety and depression to high blood pressure can be ameliorated to some degree by a pet's unconditional loving companionship. Given the essential component of stress management for any long-term addiction recovery program, a recent study from the University of Cambridge Department of Veterinary Medicine is enlightening. Researchers found that pet owners reported a highly significant reduction in minor health problems during the first month following pet acquisition, and this effect was sustained in dog owners for up to 10 months. In addition, dog owners got considerably more physical exercise (while walking their dogs) than did those without pets.

The results of this research provide evidence that pet acquisition could have positive effects on human health and behavior, and that in some cases these effects are relatively long-term. Both the short- and long-term effects demonstrated in this study suggest the important role pet ownership may play in supporting a recovering person's well-being.

So it should come as no surprise that this relationship would find itself incorporated into the residential treatment setting, particularly in an environment that serves clients with multiple diagnoses in addition to a substance use disorder. Often, as many admissions department staff members know, leaving a pet behind might pose a barrier to a potential client's entering residential treatment. Bringing a pet to treatment would lessen the anxiety of leaving home and entering a situation that for many amounts to unknown territory. Allowing a pet to come to treatment could in essence be the determining factor that might save someone's life.

A pet-friendly facility

In an effort to support our clients' desire to remain close with their pets while in treatment, TouchStone Treatment Center in Agoura Hills, California allows just that. Cats, dogs, fish and reptiles are all welcome in the residential setting. Multiple pets are also allowed, and there is no size restriction on dogs. The culture that is subsequently created is one of responsibility and accountability, and one that also facilitates the warmth that animals bring to the environment.

The therapeutic rationale related to allowing pets has two elements. First, in addition to the health benefits already discussed, the responsibility of daily pet care constitutes a beginning step for many clients toward regaining their sense of maturity in the world. For many, the basic autonomy of adulthood has been stripped during a period of mental health crisis and of experiencing the consequences of behavior related to addictive disorders. Therefore, it can serve as a wonderful beginning to experience the rewards of re-establishing a caring relationship with one's pet. For some, this is a very important hallmark of the return to healthy living.
Shari corbitt, phd

Shari Corbitt, PhD


The second area of therapeutic importance for clients and their animal companions is related to shame reduction. Many clients hold tremendous shame regarding the manner in which they neglected, and in some cases abused, their pets while they were either too depressed, anxious or under the influence to properly attend to them. The simple act of providing love and attention to a pet in early recovery can unleash tremendous grief and shame related to past behaviors. The resulting therapeutic material allows for processing and resolution of these issues.

Many times, clients leave treatment early, against therapeutic advice. At TouchStone, we believe that the companionship of a pet, that little bit of home, can lessen the need to leave treatment before it is advisable to do so. The length of stay here is typically 90 days, which is often necessary in a comprehensive dual diagnosis program. Someone's cat, dog, bunny or fish can help make a residential program feel safe and comfortable. The rationale of “I have to leave because there's no one home to take care of my pet” no longer serves as a viable excuse. This removes one more barrier to receiving the appropriate treatment.

Logistical factors

TouchStone is able to offer a pet-friendly environment because clients live in well-supervised condos and their pets stay there while they attend the treatment program. The condos are owned by the company and all clients must adhere to the rules and regulations for pet owners. Each animal has a “mini assessment” to make sure there is not a danger to other people or pets, and people are placed with their pet-related needs in mind. So far, no pets have been asked to leave the program!

For those clients who are allergic or who would like to remain in an animal-free environment, specific condos and common areas are kept pet-free. It is the pet owner's responsibility to make sure that their dog or cat is well-behaved. Most of the clients benefit from having to care for something other than themselves while in treatment. Not only do they have to be responsible for their pet, but they also have to be respectful of others in the program who might not be “animal people.”

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