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The Proven Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy for Alcohol Addiction

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Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is the use of a certified therapy animal by a trained professional in treatment.1 An AAT professional works in collaboration with you to develop identifiable goals to improve your emotional, cognitive, physical, and social well-being using an animal in conjunction with a form of behavioral therapy.2

Although continued research on AAT’s effectiveness with individuals with alcohol addiction is needed, several studies suggest animal-assisted therapy for alcohol addiction can be a beneficial treatment component.3

What Is Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Animal-assisted therapy is a set of therapeutic techniques used by trained professionals to incorporate an animal into a therapeutic environment. Generally speaking, the provider adds a therapy animal and a set of specific commands and activities into individual and group therapy.

AAT providers commonly use dogs and horses, but AAT can also include:1,4

  • Rabbits
  • Cats
  • Guinea pigs
  • Fish
  • Insects
  • Reptiles
  • Birds
  • Larger mammals like elephants

It is important to note that animals used for animal-assisted therapy are different than companion and service animals.4 The therapy animal is not owned by you, is not solely for companionship, and is specifically trained and used for goal-directed therapeutic activities.4

Service animals are owned by you and trained to help with a specific health condition or disability like epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or diabetes.4 For example, a service dog may be trained to alert to the onset of a seizure, panic attack, or drop in blood sugar and take specific action.

A therapy animal may be owned by the provider you see, the agency your provider works for, or a private individual who donates the animal’s time. For example, some therapy animals are specifically trained in crisis response. A crisis response animal—usually a dog—usually has a private owner and travels where it is needed, such as to help off-duty firefighters sleep and resolve anxiety during long periods of responding to a major natural disaster. Therapy animals provide a service and are considered “working” animals.

What Are the Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Due to animals’ nonjudgmental disposition, their ability to provide unconditional love and affection toward you, and their honest responses to how you treat them, the inclusion of an animal in treatment is connected to lower levels of anxiety.5

This benefit of animal-assisted therapy is not a new discovery—animals have been used in treatment settings over the past few centuries.4 In the late 1700s, rabbits were used by Quakers to promote calmness in a health facility. There are also records of rabbits being used in a German hospital in the late 1800s for the same purpose.5

Benefits of animal-assisted therapy include:5

How Is Animal-Assisted Therapy Used to Help With Alcohol Addiction?

Animal-assisted therapy for alcohol addiction may have benefits.For the treatment of alcohol and substance use disorders, retention rates are a key factor. Studies indicate that for positive recovery outcomes in alcohol addiction treatment are strongly linked to completion of treatment. Animal-assisted therapy can help motivate and keep you in treatment.6

The interaction between you and the therapy animal helps foster trust between you and the animal.7 This increase of trust and positivity can influence the therapeutic alliance, thereby increasing treatment efficacy. This alliance can also promote feelings of connectedness and assist with positive change.

AAT is often used in conjunction with other forms of therapy, like psychodynamic approaches, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and Gestalt therapy.7 This combination of techniques strengthens the likelihood of positive outcomes and can further promote psychological development and well-being.

AAT can be used in:

  • An individual session (i.e., you, the therapist, and the animal)
  • A couple’s setting (i.e., you, your partner, the therapist, and the animal)
  • A group setting (i.e., you, other members in treatment, the therapist, and the animal)

Animal-assisted therapy for alcohol addiction incorporates several components that have shown to be beneficial in treatment, including:3

  • Providing a topic of interest to talk about (i.e., the therapy animal), which can assist in building verbal communication skills and help you build a natural social connection
  • Reducing feelings of anxiety, especially related to being in therapy and/or in a group setting, increasing participation and vulnerability
  • Building trust and pro-social skills
  • Identifying the animal as a crucial part of the treatment team
  • Influencing goal attainment in a positive way
  • Introducing therapeutic touch without physical contact between you and the therapist

Who Is Animal-Assisted Therapy Recommended For?

Although animal-assisted therapy can be added to a treatment regimen for a wide range of conditions, it may not necessarily work for you. Conditions that may be addressed using AAT include:7

  • Addiction
  • Physical ailments and disabilities (e.g., stroke)
  • Mental health diagnoses (e.g., PTSD, anxiety, and depression)

Before AAT is added to your treatment for alcohol addiction, the therapist will evaluate if AAT is appropriate for you based on your history, symptoms, and the available treatment setting.8

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The therapist must also examine if the therapy animal is able to follow the appropriate commands and therapy techniques needed specifically for you and your goals. Some considerations the therapist takes into account before implementing AAT are if you:8

  • Are allergic to the animal
  • Have a phobia of the animal
  • May respond fearfully or aggressively to behaviors the animal has exhibited
  • Have a history of harming animals or pose a threat to harming them

The therapist must also ensure the treatment setting is suitable for animal involvement (e.g., there is enough physical space). If deemed fit, the therapist begins to network with the facility and treatment team to ensure policies and procedures are followed.8 Once it has been confirmed the treatment is appropriate and the facility can accommodate the needs of the animal, the therapist will collaboratively work with you to define treatment goals and explain the specifics of AAT treatment.

Although adverse reactions to AAT are rare, your provider will also discuss potential risks and you may need to sign a waiver.1 For example, your provider may discuss the protocol for dealing with allergies, bites, or injuries (e.g., a fall from a horse). You will also agree to precautions that reduce the risks of these risks, such as undergoing training on how to approach, get on, safely ride, and dismount a horse if you do not have an equestrian background.

In What Settings Is Animal-Assisted Therapy Used?

Animal-assisted therapy is a flexible treatment option that can be used in several settings. Commonly, these settings include:

  • Private psychotherapy practices
  • Hospitals
  • Residential facilities
  • Rehabilitation centers
  • Intensive outpatient treatment programs
  • Healthcare offices (e.g., primary care physicians and dentists)
  • Equestrian centers that specialize in horse-assisted therapy

Some providers are mobile and able to bring the animal to you. Therapy with larger animals (i.e., horses) will likely occur in a stable or on a farm. AAT is easily adapted for individual treatment or for the treatment of a group.

For example, in general, AAT using a horse, also known as equine-assisted therapy, consists of a number of therapeutic techniques that assist with developing skills, mastering tasks, and reflecting behaviors and emotions.9 Although specific interventions may vary across providers, common techniques include:

  • Grooming and caring for the horse’s needs
  • Goal-directed riding (e.g., complete a pattern or perform a task)
  • Interpreting the horse’s behavior and body language

For other AAT animals, techniques are relatively the same, instead of riding, AAT providers could have you engage in goal-directed play.

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How Effective Is Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Despite animal-assisted therapy’s long history of use, there continues to be limited research on its effectiveness for alcohol addiction. AAT is not appropriate for everyone, but there is evidence AAT can help improve addiction treatment outcomes.3,6 Specifically, AAT can improve the client-therapist relationship—specifically in building trust—and the likelihood of completing planned treatment.3

The Journal of Psychiatric Research reviewed several studies which showed mixed results of the effectiveness of AAT. The review identified several studies indicating that AAT helped lower levels of:10

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Systolic blood pressure
  • Certain hormones

The review also found that some participants reported improved mental health and physical mobility.10

However, there are not statistically relevant repeated studies that provide evidence of universal mood or physical health improvements with the inclusion of animal-assistance therapy. Because different animals and techniques are used in each program, this may skew the data collected in some studies and make it more difficult to determine the scientific effectiveness of the method.

Your treatment team and you may way the given benefits, your needs, and the availability of animal-assisted treatment when deciding on your treatment plan.

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  1. Charry-Sánchez, J., David, P. I., & Talero-Gutiérrez, C. (2018). Animal-assisted therapy in adults: A systematic review. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, (32), 169-180.
  2. Williams, S. L. (2017, September 21). Exploring an animal assisted intervention: perceptions and coping. DEdPsy Thesis, Cardiff University.
  3. Wesley, M.C., Minatrea, N.B., & Watson, J.C. (2009). Assisted therapy in the treatment of substance dependence. Anthrozoos, 22(2), 137-148.
  4. Andraseasen, G., Stella, T., Wilkison, M., Szczech Moser, C., Hoelzel, A., & Hendricks, L. (2017, February 15). Animal-assisted therapy and occupational therapy. Journal of Occupational Therapy, Schools & Early Intervention, 10(1), 1-17.
  5. Ernst, L. (2012). Animal-assisted therapy: Using animals to promote healing. Nursing, 42(10), 55-58.
  6. Kern-Godal, A., Arnevik, E., Walderhaug, E., & Ravndal, E. (2015, October 14). Substance use disorder treatment retention and completion: A prospective study of horse-assisted therapy (HAT) for young adults. Addiction Science & Clinical Practice, 10(21), 1-12.
  7. Compitus, K. (2019, August 07). The process of integrating animal-assisted therapy into clinical social work practice. Clinical Social Work Journal, 49(1), 1-9.
  8. Chandler, C. K. (2005). Animal-assisted therapy in counseling. New York: Routledge.
  9. Nurenberg, J.R., Schleifer, S. J., Shaffer, T. M., Yellin, M., Desai, P. J., Amin, R., Bouchard, A., & Montalvo, C. (2015, January 02). Animal-assisted therapy with chronic psychiatric inpatients: Equine-assisted psychotherapy and aggressive behaviour. Psychiatric Services, 44(1), 80-86.
  10. Hawkins, E.L., Hawkins, R.D., Dennis, M., Williams, J.M., & Lawrie, S. M. (2019). Animal-assisted therapy for schizophrenia and related disorders: A systematic review. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 115(1), 51-60.
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