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  • Writer's pictureMARJORIE FERGUSON

Pets and Sober Life

Alcoholism and drug addiction are diseases of loneliness in that alcoholics and addicts behaviorally alienate those whom they cherish the most. Bill Wilson characterized loneliness in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous as a “chilling vapor” that permeates the life of the afflicted individual and is part of the terrible despair that they suffer. As a result of this horrible truth, clinicians emphasize that social interaction is paramount to the recovery of an alcoholic or drug addict, and this is part of the therapeutic value of living in a sober house amongst peers on the same journey of healing.

Some clinicians may also be aware of the therapeutic value of household pets in a sober living environment, namely, dogs and cats. Society is quick to recognize therapy animals for the emotionally distressed public at large, even to the point of legislation mandating their ability to bring these animals into public places, such as restaurants and in stores. Naturally, then, it follows that such animals would also be beneficial in the therapeutic milieu of sober living.

Most everyone will acknowledge the feeling of comfort and security that the presence of a dog or companionable cat provides. Dogs and cats seem to have a sixth sense that enables them to perceive a troubled mind and their very countenance appears to offer consolation. There is the sensation that somehow, these animals are aware of human sadness and seek to alleviate this melancholy.

A study was conducted in 2012 by University of London researchers where they selected 18 dogs of different breeds and subjected them to scenarios where their owners or the researchers were crying and then at a different time when they were humming. Out of the 18, 15 approached the owner or researcher when they were crying, versus six that approached when they were humming. The researchers concluded that the dogs were responding to the person’s emotion and that this fact suggested the dogs’ ability to feel empathy.

Another study, conducted at The University of New York at Buffalo, found that cat owners have reduced blood pressure spikes in response to stress. Increases in blood pressure due to stressful situations were half as high for the group that owned cats as the group in the study that did not own cats. Cats purr at a frequency between 25 and 50 Hz, and this frequency is not only stress-relieving but can promote bone density and fracture healing.

This combination of human intuition and scientific study leaves no doubt that dogs and cats do have beneficial roles to play when it comes to alleviating emotional distress. All that is required is to ask a pet owner about their relationship with an animal that they own, and a glowing review will follow, perhaps along with a few good-natured complaints.

Individuals suffering from the recent devastation of active addiction that led them to sober living are in desperate need of a bonding experience. Ideally, the sober house will be as warm and welcoming as possible, but there is always an adjustment and acclimation period that can be stressful. Meeting new people that already know one another is generally not a pleasant experience for alcoholics and drug addicts and, for some, this is part of the reason that they used.

Meeting a dog or a cat is not stressful. Most people naturally gravitate towards animals, and this may be the first relationship that a person feels comfortable with when adjusting to a sober living environment. The introduction to the animals serves as the perfect ice-breaker and usually will stimulate a conversation about pets in general. Pets make a new living situation warmer and more natural, engendering a feeling of normalcy and stability. In short, pets make a house a home.

Throughout a stay at a sober house, there will likely be times when a resident will feel lonely or troubled. Early recovery can involve seething emotions that have been held at bay by a drug of choice for a long time. These incidences of distress are optimal times for a sober house therapy animal to come into play. Someone that just had a challenging phone call with a loved one will feel relief when the dog comes and rests his head on their leg, or the cat crawls into their lap. Taking the house dog for a walk is an excellent way to clear the head and bond with the animal.

The bottom line is that dogs and cats make perfect additions to a sober house. These animals convey the feeling that a sober house is a place where healthy people reside that are no different from anyone else. Our four-legged friends consistently uplift the energy of a sober living house and make it a more pleasant experience for all who live there.

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