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Overcoming Substance Use: Can Animals Help In Addiction Treatment?

By: Kelsey Stamborski


Prior research has shown that human-animal bonding can reduce anxiety, lower agitation, and improve overall health and wellbeing. More recently, research has shown that there may also be benefits of animal interaction during addiction treatment and recovery. A 2014 study by Kamioka and Okada found that animal interventions with dogs, cats, horses, dolphins, birds, rabbits and guinea pigs are an effective treatment for alcohol and drug addiction, as well as mental disorders such as depression and schizophrenia.

Likewise, a 2016 study from the University of Washington found similar benefits of animal interaction during addiction treatment. Specifically, the study found reduced hostility and sadness in adolescent boys who underwent 1-hour weekly sessions of human-dog interaction during inpatient treatment for substance abuse. Specific research on animal-assisted treatment for addiction is still limited, but the Department of Psychology of Emory University has shown impressive results with a variety of animals, ranging from common household pets (dogs and cats) to exotic animals (dolphins and elephants) helping in the treatment of a number of psychological disorders.

How does animal-assisted therapy help recovering addicts?

Interactions with animals have been shown to improve sociability, communication skills, responsibility, compassion, and trust. Recovering addicts can learn to be less impulsive and develop improved coping skills and problem-solving strategies as a result of these sessions. Furthermore, most recovering addicts who engage in animal-assisted therapy also report having better rapport with their therapist, reduced anxiety, and increased success in recovery.

Please note that animal-assisted therapy is not a stand-alone addiction treatment and it cannot replace evidence-based treatment modalities such as detox and counseling.

If you would like to learn more about the benefits of animal-assisted therapy, and where you may be able to get animal-assisted therapy for addiction, please visit


Kamioka, H., Okada, S., Tsutani, K., Park, H., Okuizumi, H., Handa, S., ... & Honda, T. (2014). Effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Complementary therapies in medicine, 22(2), 371-390.

Madden Ellsworth, L., Tragesser, S., & Newberry, R. C. (2016). Interaction with shelter dogs reduces negative affect of adolescents in substance use disorder treatment. Anthrozoös, 29(2), 247-262.

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