Emotional support animals can help people deal with trauma, stress, anxiety and addiction. Take a first-hand look at what these animals do for people each day.
For the last four weeks, I have fostered a rescue dog named Dawson. My sense of purpose, value and need for connection have been fulfilled immeasurably. I’ve not only felt more purpose, but I have also felt physically and mentally great. I have more energy, and I have had fewer days feeling down, stressed and depressed. I am not the only one who has felt the impact of having a support animal: there are many books and articles that speak to the power of emotional support animals in drug addiction recovery and healing trauma, grief, and many other stressful life events.
I have always loved animals. I had dogs for short periods as a child and have always gravitated toward my friends’ pets. They called me “the dog whisperer.” I just love holding and petting animals — they are one of life’s great joys. I have always wanted to get my own dog, but it was never the right time due to either my living arrangements or my rapid decline into addiction.
I have now been sober for a while. After my big move to the U.S., I figured it was the best time to fulfill my dreams of getting a dog. I went to meet the animals at the nearest rescue shelter, and I was soon filled with the familiar joy of being around beautiful dogs. However, being conscious of the commitment required (and the tomcat already living with me), I decided to try fostering a dog first.
And along came Dawson. He was the cutest, sweetest, cuddliest little guy. I almost immediately fell in love with him. Initially, I wondered what I had taken on — he was nervous, suffered from separation anxiety and struggled to settle. Within a day, though, he was cuddling up to me. By day two, he wouldn’t leave my side. He was utterly adorable and I truly adored him.
Animals in the Recovery Process
Dogs are not just companions; they require commitment, responsibility and effort. Though I doubted my abilities and things were initially challenging, especially with a rescue dog, I ultimately found a very powerful kind of recovery support.
I was immediately thrown into a position of increased responsibility. As a freelance writer and coach, I needed to keep a schedule to juggle the tasks of working and caring for his needs. Among many other things, his needs included regular walking, feeding twice a day, making sure he has enough water and keeping his room safe, cool and sheltered.
He also brought me accountability in recovery. I had to ensure that he was adjusting okay, and I had to deal with behavioral issues like leash aggression and fearful behavior. Heartbreakingly, Dawson had been abandoned before I met him. He was rescued from a place where he slept on a concrete floor, and he had calluses on his skin and bald patches where hair was missing. His trauma was obvious in his reaction to others — he was terrified and would cower or hide from new people. Dawson was in desperate need of love and stability, and I made it my mission to provide that for him — even if only for a short time until he was adopted.
This responsibility provided not only structure to my life, but also a sense of purpose. With Dawson, I knew there was something that needed my help. In this vital part of the recovery process, I wasn’t able to isolate or withdraw, which are all-too-familiar symptoms of our disease. So I quickly got my hands dirty: I sought expert advice for his issues, immediately began dealing with his leash aggression, provided a safe and calming environment and gave him as much love as I could.
That level of accountability, sense of value and personal responsibility left me feeling fulfilled. I can see how these factors are major elements of keeping sober and in recovery. Much like when you’re sober around children, you wouldn’t want to jeopardize the welfare of something that depends on you by relapsing.
Animals Benefit Your Physical and Mental Health
Along with providing a sense of accountability, pets can have the added benefit of affecting us emotionally and neuro-physically. Even though Dawson was challenging, he brought me so much joy. He was so cute, quirky, and responded quickly to training and new tricks. Stroking him had a calming effect on both stress and anxiety, and the love I felt for him seemed to fill my whole being. Coping with stress in recovery can be incredibly difficult, but spending time with Dawson left me feeling less stressed, having fewer depressive episodes and feeling good mentally. I’ve discovered a newfound feeling of wellness, and recovery has been much easier to sustain.
Author Jennifer Matesa often tells me about the power of having a pet. She said, “I’ve read that gazing into your dog’s face releases as much oxytocin — the bonding and attachment hormone — as looking into your baby’s eyes. But you know what, recovery has taught me that I don’t always need to rely on ‘studies’ to confirm what I already know in my body: My dog loves me and supports me in staying healthy. And she gets me running or walking in the woods four or five times a week, which is invaluable for healing the body!”
As Jennifer implies, there are numerous physical health benefits that can accompany animal ownership, like regular walking and running. These cardiovascular activities provide stress relief and reduce your risk of illness due to inactivity and obesity-related diseases. Walking your dog is a built-in part of caring for their needs, so they’re guaranteed to get you some exercise.
As far as other animals are concerned, some studies show that having a cat can reduce your risk of heart disease. For 10 years, Adnan Qureshi, professor of neurosurgery and neurology at the University of Minnesota, followed the health of around 4,500 people. In 2008, he announced his study’s intriguing conclusions: Those who owned a cat were a third less likely to have a heart attack than those who had no cat in their lives.
Whether a cat or a dog, the benefits of emotional support animals are incredible. They provide accountability, companionship, stress relief and much more. Nothing seems to be quite as big of an issue when you have a pet to cuddle with. An animal gives you a great sense of perspective in life.
My weeks with Dawson were incredible. I had a true companion who taught me unconditional love, helped me deal with stress and made me feel great. I wouldn’t change that for the world. He has now moved on to new owners, and I can’t wait to get my next dog.
Paddock, Catharine. “Cat Owners Have Lower Heart Attack Risk, Study.” Medical News Today, February 25, 2008. Accessed July 10, 2019.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.