Pets: The Not Human Sponsors

Published on May 12, 2020 by First Responder Wellness

Finding the right person to sponsor you through your recovery can be a fragile tightrope of chemistry and trust. This is understandable given that human relationships are complex. Luckily, we get to share this planet with other amazing creatures like cats, dogs, and of course, leopard geckos. These animals and critters aren’t only important within the animal kingdom though. 


Emotional Support

Pets play a crucial role in symbiosis with their owners. Along with seeing-eye dogs, wool-bearing livestock, and pack animals capable of powering farm equipment, our relationships with domesticated animals have been proven to benefit the mental health of recovering alcohol and/or substance users.

According to a 2010 study published in The American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, pets support those with severe mental illness by providing empathy, therapy, and a sense of personal empowerment. Moreover, living with pets showed improvements in the owner’s ability to navigate social interactions in a healthy manner, while filling the role of a “family” for those who may not live in a setting with a traditional family structure.


Animals play a crucial role in reducing depression for those dealing with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The daily tasks involved with caring for an animal like feeding and playing with them, and assisting a wholly dependent creature helps pet owners to make healthy decisions they may not have otherwise made on their own.

In turn, having this responsibility empowers an individual’s feelings of importance. If an animal relies on them to wake up every day, go for a walk, maintain a sanitary living space, and eat at regular intervals, then the likelihood of the same person developing the skills to care for their own personal needs as well greatly increases.


The emotional link between a pet and a human companion goes beyond scientific examination in many ways. However, it is important to note the physical developments that occur when caring for an animal.

Dogs in particular assist in restoring the brain’s dopamine levels which may have been altered through alcohol and/or substance use. This allows those in recovery to limit the urges their brain has come to anticipate from the continued use of alcohol and/or narcotics.

Dog owners may also experience boosted levels of oxytocin, serotonin, and other mood-enhancing neurotransmitter activity. The happiness derived from living with a dog may quite literally be “all in your head,” but by no means does this mean it is fabricated or not real.


Alternative Health Benefits

Studies demonstrate that the mind and body equally thrive in the presence of animals. A nationwide 2017 study of the Swedish population spanning twelve years of follow-up found that owning a dog is associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease.

Furthermore, the study found a possible correlation between increased parasympathetic and decreased sympathetic nervous systems and the companionship of caring for a domesticated animal. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for activating the fight-or-flight response resulting from perceived harm or threat.

A primary strategy of this type of response includes a rapidly accelerating heart rate and breathing along with the constriction of blood vessels. These physiological reactions can take a toll on cardiovascular health over time.

Particularly for first responders in recovery, who regularly stress the cardiovascular systems during high-adrenaline situations, returning to a living situation supportive of low-stress and decelerated average heart rates can extend the length and quality of one’s life.


Social Habits

In addition to mental and cardiovascular health, the use of therapy animals for patients entering rehabilitation facilities offers a unique opportunity for diagnosis. Having therapy animals during a facility’s intake process may provide a rare window into an individual’s social tendencies by observation by seeing the way they interact with animals.

Clinicians can gain insight into the social issues troubling an individual in recovery based on telltale signs derived from the behavior they exhibit in their relationship with the animal. 


For example, if a patient fixates on the degree to which a therapy dog seems to like them, this may hint to a clinician that social motivators such as approval or judgment may be a trigger for alcohol and/or substance use.

The animal-human dynamic sheds light on human-human interactions as well. Therefore, addicted individuals who are able to take note of their own tendencies in this way can start the process of self-empowerment by first making changes with their own pets.


The benefits of caring for animals highlight an underlying truth in addiction and in recovery: the way to helping ourselves is through first helping others. We can begin to right the wrongs impacted by our addictions if we address the needs of others before our own. Our desires begin to seem less demanding when we empathize with those other than ourselves and outside of our own existence.

Through acts of kindness, we project kindness, which shifts our perspective towards empathy and thoughtfulness. The joy of animals may not necessarily be a secret, but for many, they reveal the great secret.

As clients begin to progress through the various stages of addiction treatment, pets can help their parents by allowing them to cope with many of their restored emotions. Generally, a more relaxed atmosphere is established with pets present, allowing for bonds to form between clients. First Responder Wellness is one of the few pet-friendly rehab centers in Newport Beach. Rather than turn your four-legged friends away, we actually encourage you to bring a companion because we have seen the positive effects of pet-friendly therapy. During your recovery journey, your pet will likely serve as a companion, friend, and support system. If you or your loved ones are ready to begin living alcohol and substance-free lives with an animal companion, please call our admissions staff 24/7 at 888-743-0490.