Animal-assisted therapy can go a long way in helping us heal
By Patrick McElwaine, Psy.D., LPCMarch 4, 2021
For many of us, our pets can play a significant role in our addiction recovery. Pet therapy, also known as animal-assisted therapy, is a growing field utilized to help individuals with physical and mental health concerns. Dogs and other animals can help people with their recovery from physical, emotional and mental health challenges.
The literature on the benefits of pet therapy continues to grow. Pets can provide an amazing support for us with our mental and physical health.”
While working at an inpatient psychiatric facility as a clinical psychologist, I saw firsthand the benefits of pet therapy with adolescents and adults provided by Dave, the owner of Bruce, the pet therapy dog. Bruce is a certified therapy dog with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. Dave and Bruce were hugely successful in bringing smiles and positive interactions to clients in the hospital, and their impact on patient progress was evident. These animal interactions can be powerful, especially when someone is feeling depressed and hopeless. The literature on the benefits of pet therapy continues to grow. Pets can provide an amazing support for us with our mental and physical health. Our household pets can give tremendous support to those in recovery.
Pet Therapy with My Dog Vinnie
In my personal life, my dog Vinnie was extremely important to my recovery. When my wife and I decided to get a dog in 2007, she was the first to spot him at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), but I consider myself lucky to have won the decision to name him Vinnie (my wife wanted to name him Romeo). I first entered recovery in 2005. I struggled and often relapsed on alcohol, benzodiazepines, opiates and anything else I could get my hands on until Feb. 12, 2009. That continues to be my sobriety date.
Vinnie was there throughout everything with me. Taking him for a walk or to the dog park, or just hanging around the house with him, helped me to get through the tough times. He was and continues to be a tremendous emotional support for me. Through the ups and downs you experience with your addiction recovery, a pet can bring the emotional and mental support that you may need. Everyone laughs at me for it, but I definitely think of Vinnie as my furry son. At the very least, he is a key part of our family.
There are many positives to having a pet when you have a mental health diagnosis and/or addiction. On the other hand, the sadness of losing a pet you love can be very difficult to manage. On Dec. 24 of last year, we found out that Vinnie had a large tumor on his liver. A week later, we discovered it was not cancerous. However, Vinnie is 14 years old, and his health is on the decline. Even thinking about this brings tears to my eyes. Research has shown that losing a pet is just as difficult as losing a family member. I know when Vinnie’s time comes, it will be tough for my family.
Through the ups and downs you experience with your addiction recovery, a pet can bring the emotional and mental support that you may need. Everyone laughs at me for it, but I definitely think of Vinnie as my furry son.”
How to Deal with the Loss of Your Pet
Here are some recommendations that may help you if you lose a pet:
Emotions: Please remember, it is normal to experience intense loss, sadness and grief when our pets pass away.
Therapy: A therapist can help us process the grief and find ways to cope with the significant loss.
Support groups: Check with your veterinarian, the SPCA or local animal shelters for pet loss support groups where you can connect with other individuals who have lost a beloved animal. These groups can provide emotional support throughout the grieving process.
Speak about your loss: Continue to talk about your thoughts and feelings related to the frustrations, anxiety, sadness and grief due to the loss of your pet.
Memorialize your pet: Hold a memorial service and funeral for your pet. Family members, friends and children can benefit by paying respects and saying goodbyes to your pet. Also, create a collage, picture book or scrapbook of your pet. Children can draw pictures of the animal.
Read “Rainbow Bridge”: Soothe yourself with the poem “Rainbow Bridge,” which is about losing a pet. It can be very helpful to someone who loses a pet and can ease the grieving process.
Engage in self-care: Yoga, meditation, taking walks, listening to music, exercise and eating a healthy diet are some things that can uplift you during a time of grieving.
Bibliotherapy: Books related to losing a pet can be beneficial. Some reading recommendations:
- Goodbye, Friend: Healing Wisdom for Anyone Who Has Ever Lost a Pet, by Gary Kowalski
- And I Love You Still: A Thoughtful Guide and Remembrance Journal for Healing the Loss of a Pet, by Julianne Corbin
- The Loss of Pet: A Guide to Coping with the Grieving Process When a Pet Dies, by Wallace Sife
Patrick McElwaine, Psy.D., LPC, is known as “Dr. Mac” to his clients, students and colleagues. He has his own counseling practice, teaches counseling psychology at Holy Family University in Pennsylvania, is a faculty member at the Beck Institute and serves on the Bucks County National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) board of trustees. His column “Dear Recovery” publishes regularly on TreatmentMagazine.com.