Why are pets so important to people in recovery?
You might think my love for my cat Colonel Puff Puff is ridiculous. And yes, I’ve been called a “cat lady” many a time and had full conversations with him and wept on his long grey and white fur. But I’m not alone. You may notice that many people in recovery have an intense devotion to their pets. Go on any Zoom recovery meeting, and you’ll see cats or dogs walking past the camera or curled up on attendees’ laps. Incredibly, there’s actually science behind it all.
Research shows that pets bring benefits
To start with, there are actual health benefits to having a pet. According to the CDC, studies have shown that the relationship between people and pets is linked to several health benefits including “decreased blood pressure, cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels, feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and symptoms of PTSD” as well as “increased opportunities for exercise and outdoor activities; better cognitive function in older adults; and more opportunities to socialize.” I mean, there are now recovery meetings at dog parks, for God’s sake!
Even the NIH has researched the effect of pets and says, “Interacting with animals has been shown to decrease levels of cortisol (a stress-related hormone).” When I feel stressed out, I lay down with the Colonel and he jumps on the bed to nap with me. Just the warmth of his body pressing on mine (or sleeping on my head, a new, not so favored position) and his rhythmic purring make me feel calmer than any Insight Timer meditation or binging on Netflix ever could.
Pets can help us feel less lonely
Let’s revisit the CDC’s “decreased feelings of loneliness benefit” for a moment. Loneliness has been called the core of addiction, or at least a least a huge contributing factor. I can only speak for myself, but thanks to drugs, mental illness, and trauma, I’m not the best at romantic relationships. And while friends are great, they don’t sleep in your bed or lick your face incessantly. Pets provide unconditional love, something a lot of us didn’t get from our parents. (Hi, anxious-ambivalent, disorganized, and avoidant attachment styles!) Especially if you live alone, a pet can be key to not feeling … well, lonely. When Colonel Puff Puff was in the hospital, my house felt achingly empty without his fluffy presence. I just went to visit my father, who’s unfortunately in the hospital, and on my first night at his girlfriend’s house, I reached for Colonel in the bed—this animal who makes me feel safe and comforted—only to remember I wasn’t at home. Pets are most definitely a grounding presence. Pets won’t judge you for your past arrests or relapses or restraining orders. They just want to love you. And who doesn’t need and want that?
Pets can give bring us out of our heads
In my active addiction, I was extraordinarily self-centered. And because of years of addiction, I never had the ability or opportunity to have a child. So my focus was always on me, me, me. Even in recovery, a person can be self-centered. All the navel-gazing, focus on changing your neural pathways and habits, and constantly taking your emotional temperature are new (hopefully more productive) ways of thinking about yourself. But with a pet, you are thinking about them. Not only that, but you are completely responsible for their well-being: food, water, medical care, attention. That’s a lot of responsibility. It’s not just about you anymore. And if you can take care of a living animal and be responsible, just maybe that ability to be responsible can bleed over into finances, sobriety, a job, taxes, etc. (Although I will confess, I still can’t keep a plant alive.) In the end, having a pet teaches you to care for (and dare I say, trust) another living being, and that can transfer to human beings. You gotta start somewhere.
In early recovery, pets can give you a sense of purpose until you can find your true purpose. Early recovery can feel like a no man’s land, where nothing but staying clean matters and there is little pleasure or meaning. But behold, you have this furry being who gives you joy and makes you feel needed and important!
Pets can provide structure and discipline
Finally, there is discipline. —not my favorite subject, but the key to long-term sobriety. I may fall off the beam with meditation or exercise or meetings, but I never miss one of Colonel’s feedings or medications. This provides a start. Once you have the evidence that you can do something consistently, you feel confident that you might be able to do that in other areas of your life as well. Again, it’s baby steps. Discipline with furry training wheels!
Personally, I think pets are more than emotional support animals. As I’ve shown, they provide the framework for other areas of our life that we need to improve or relearn. I’ve been through breakups and deaths and illness and surgeries and health problems and depression … and guess who’s always been there by my side? Colonel Puff Puff. Of course, I also have (and strongly recommend) a sober network, but sometimes you just don’t feel like talking.
I think we need to rethink the term “cat lady” as a negative thing, and instead look at the scientific data of the tangible therapeutic benefits of cats, dogs, fish, birds, and any pet for people in recovery! Sometimes we know what we need before we even know why. I’ll close with a quote from my good friend and author of “The Long Run & Other Stories,” Mishka Shubaly. “During the darkest years of my sobriety, I adopted a special needs cat and then a puppy recovering from a bite wound. They have saved my life many times over and transform my life every day. Pets give you unconditional love, and they are safe vessels for the unconditional love we have in us. The constant barrage of feces is a small price to pay for such cosmic, stabilizing understanding.”