Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) and SUD

Ashleigh Rose Bottorff

Updated: 03/14/2024

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AAT (Animal Assisted Therapy) involves animals in a treatment plan designed exclusively for a patient. AAT, coupled with specific goal-oriented treatment, can bring hope to people with SUD and mental health issues, including but not limited to anxiety, depression, PTSD, schizophrenia, and trauma.

Animals give us unconditional love, unlimited support, and are always there for us! From warm nuzzles, to a furry hug or a slobbery kiss, animals love us regardless of who we are, what we do for a living, how big (or small) our house is, what’s in our bank account, or whatever struggles we have! It is well known that animals can help us get through our darkest days!

What is AAT

AAT is a type of therapy that includes animals in the treatment process. AAT also increases the probability of completion of addiction treatment, and reduces the risk of relapse. AAT is goal-directed and involves a therapist who guides the interaction between the animal and the client.

While AAT can use many different types of animals, dogs and horses being the most common, but dolphins, cats, birds, rabbits, cows, ferrets, llamas, alpacas, and guinea pigs and other farm animals are being used as well. There is no research to determine if one animal is more effective than another. Using horses is growing in popularity; however, we will focus on dogs.

After a rough day, we are welcomed home by a wagging tail and loving eyes saying “I missed you! Let’s go play!” Animals only want to be loved, just like the rest of us. They reduce our anxiety levels, help us relax, and provide us with a sense of safety and reassurance that “all will be well”.

Owning a dog has many perks, including helping us develop good habits and routines, i.e., walks, feeding, grooming, training, and just an overall feeling of being responsible for someone other than ourselves. When the going gets tough…

They remind us that they are counting on us!

How Animal Assisted Therapy Works

Animals can help us achieve a healthier lifestyle; however, they have to be incorporated into AAT as part of the treatment process. AAT is directed by a trained professional who demonstrates their knowledge of AAT. AAT is documented and evaluated within an individualized treatment plan and is goal-directed and tied to a patient’s treatment progress including detox, and counseling.

Using AAT, findings confirm that the bond between animals and humans can be extremely beneficial in the therapeutic process. AAT has grown in popularity in recent years. This therapeutic approach allows people undergoing therapy to feel more comfortable and safe and more likely to speak openly and freely as they seek treatment for SUD and mental health issues. AAT therapy sessions allow the therapist to observe the interactions between the patient and the animal, and to aid in identifying triggers and unhealthy coping mechanisms. This gives the therapist opportunities to create better coping strategies and alternatives to alcohol and drug misuse.

Interacting with animals can help patients decrease anxiety and stress, reduce feelings of fear or worry, and increase feelings of social support. AAT can help alleviate aggression, anger, anxiety, depression, and stress and can give a patient a sense of calm and happiness. AAT can also help alleviate the symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

Dogs reduce anxiety, depression, and stress. They ease loneliness, encourage exercise, and improve your all-around health. Emotional benefits include a reduction in feelings of anger, anxiety, hostility, tension, and provides improved personal grooming and social interactions, a greater sense of responsibility, and increased feelings of empowerment, patience, self-esteem, and trust.

Pet Therapy Settings

Therapy takes place in many settings, including correctional facilities, farms, hospitals, libraries, long-term facilities, nursing homes, outdoors, outpatient, residential rehab facilities, schools, and therapy offices, and is provided by various organizations. Sessions can be conducted individually or with a group, but they must be led by a trained AAT professional.

Finding a Pet Friendly Rehab Center/Therapist

You are very brave to seek treatment, and the last thing you should have to worry about is who is going to care for your pet. There are several pet-friendly rehab centers and therapists throughout the country. Use our directory or do a search on Google. Make sure you can bring your pet with you and know the requirements. Be sure and take your vet records, health certificate, and your best friend’s toys and bed with you. The best to you both!

Risks of AAT

Not everyone is a good fit for AAT. If you have any of the following situations, then AAT may not be right for you. Patients with allergies, a strong fear of animals, or even a dislike of animals, have a reduced immunity due to HIV or AIDS, chemotherapy, or radiation for cancer, or any immune-suppressive medications, AAT may not be for you.

While you cannot eliminate all risks completely, in reality, these well-trained animals and their owners make this a small risk. While interacting with pets is usually safe, people and pets can be unpredictable. For the pet therapy animal, patients must also be gentle. Dropping a small dog or cat can hurt them; squeezing a larger pet can be uncomfortable. To minimize problems, pets should be accustomed to common handling – rubbing ears, patting heads, etc. Dogs should be obedience trained, and owners should know how to control them. There are many experienced organizations that train both the pet and their owner to be a pet therapy team.

Animals participating in AAT should be up-to-date on vaccinations, in good health, and have routine pet visits. AAT may not be covered by insurance. Be sure to check with your provider before working with an AAT therapist.

Addiction and mental health issues are strong, but together we are stronger!

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction or mental health issues, please seek help immediately! There are trained professionals who specialize in SUD (Substance Use Disorder) and mental health issues. There are nationwide treatment centers that offer safe, caring environments for detoxification, inpatient, out-patient treatment, and hospitalization.

Additional Resources for AAT