Updated on February 6, 2024
5 min read

Animal-Assisted Therapy for Addiction Treatment

What Is Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a therapeutic approach that incorporates animals into the treatment plan. It’s based on the theory that certain animals reduce anxiety and stress.

AAT has counselors, social workers, and therapists who involve animals in other types of therapy. It is ideal for people who have experienced trauma or struggle to express their emotions.

AAT is also beneficial for people undergoing substance use treatment. The inclusion of animals in therapy is comforting and can instill confidence.

Animal-Assisted Therapy for Addiction Treatment Pros & Cons

Using animals in substance use disorder treatment has several pros and cons. 

What Are the Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy in Substance Abuse?

Animal-assisted therapy offers many benefits for people with substance use disorders. For example, it can:

Strengthen the Therapeutic Alliance

Including an animal in therapy strengthens the relationship between the therapist and the client.

Improve the Client’s View of their Therapist

People who have animals involved in their therapy sessions tend to have a better view of their therapists.

Improve Client Retention

Animals tend to lengthen the time someone is willing to stick with therapy. Many believe this is because their presence reduces anxiety during treatment. Clients feel better when animals are with them during therapy.

Improve Overall Mood and Confidence

People participating in animal-assisted therapy tend to have higher confidence and better social and communication skills.

Regulate Emotions

Animals help clients experience and process their emotions. Many feel better equipped to navigate their difficult emotions with an animal present.

Help with Communication

The presence of an animal provides a safe topic of conversation. All of the focus isn’t on substance use and recovery. Instead, clients can talk to their therapist about the animal, eventually leading to other conversations.

Offer Physical Benefits

Interaction with animals triggers the release of “feel-good chemicals,” including endorphins, oxytocin, and serotonin. It also reduces cortisol levels. 

Are There Cons to Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Animal-assisted therapy isn’t right for everyone. It should be avoided with people who:

  • Dislike animals
  • Are disinterested in animals
  • Have a fear of animals
  • Have a history of hurting animals
  • Are allergic to animals
  • Have cultural or religious concerns related to animals

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Does Insurance Cover Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Health insurance might cover all or part of the cost of animal-assisted therapy. It’s more common when AAT is used in alcohol or drug addiction programs.

The cost of AAT ranges from a few hundred dollars up to $10,000 depending on what animal is used and how it is used. The cost can be much less if the animal is just a small part of the overall therapeutic approach. It costs more in situations where animals are used full-time.

Animal-Assisted Therapy vs. Pet Therapy

Animal therapy is similar to pet therapy since both use animals. However, pet therapy is less structured. It’s an opportunity to feel comforted by pets, but it isn’t as goal-oriented as AAT.

Animals most often used in AAT include:

  • Dogs
  • Horses
  • Cats
  • Dolphins
  • Rabbits
  • Birds
  • Llamas
  • Guinea Pigs
  • Rats

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Rehab Together

How Does Animal-Assisted Therapy Work?

Animal-Assisted Therapy usually involves a therapist taking an animal (such as a dog) to a care facility. The goal is to help the person feel comfortable and progress through recovery with the support of the animal’s presence.

A therapist may bring an animal to care facilities like:

  • Hospitals
  • Rehab centers
  • Long-term care centers

When larger animals like horses are used, people in treatment go to the animal’s location.

The bond between the person in therapy and the animal grows throughout one or more visits. The therapist conducts the session once the person is comfortable with therapy animals.

Much of what occurs in a typical rehab therapy session is the same as in an animal-assisted therapy session. However, the animal serves as a comfort and distraction.

Common Animal-Assisted Therapies

People are more likely to speak openly and honestly during AAT sessions because they are more at ease. Many therapists believe that animal-assisted therapy results in greater insight into their clients.

The two most common animal-assisted therapies are equine-assisted therapy and dog-assisted therapy.

Equine-Assisted Therapy

In equine-assisted therapy, horses are present during therapy sessions intended to help clients with:

  • Behavioral and emotional responses
  • Communication
  • Emotional reflections
  • Social awareness
  • Self-management
  • Personal responsibility

Horseback riding may or may not be used during therapy sessions. Sometimes clients groom, feed, or clean up after the horse. Other times the time with the horse is used to establish trust and comfort.

Dog-Assisted Therapy

Dog-assisted therapy sessions capitalize on the positive hormones released by the brain when someone pets and socializes with therapy dogs. It is the most common type of animal therapy used for people in drug and alcohol rehab.

This therapy utilizes the animal’s friendly, intelligent, and easily trainable nature to benefit the person in recovery. Being around a dog promotes relaxation and trust.


Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) involves the use of animals in therapy for substance use disorders. It’s ideal for people who struggle to manage and express their emotions. Many types of animals are used in AAT, but the most common are dogs and horses.

In most cases, AAT involves the presence of animals during regular talk therapy sessions. Sometimes the care of the animal is incorporated into sessions.

This type of therapy offers many benefits. It promotes communication between the therapist and the client. It puts clients at ease and makes it easier for them to progress in therapy. It’s not right for everyone, but those who struggle with anxiety or struggle with their emotions often benefit from AAT.

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Updated on February 6, 2024
6 sources cited
Updated on February 6, 2024
  1. Jones, Melanie G., et al. “Incorporating Animal-Assisted Therapy in Mental Health Treatments for Adolescents: A Systematic Review of Canine Assisted Psychotherapy.” PLOS ONE, 2019. 

  2. Charry-Sánchez, Jesús David, et al. “Animal-Assisted Therapy in Adults: A Systematic Review.” Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 2018. 

  3. Rodríguez-Martínez, María del Carmen, et al. “Evidence of Animal-Assisted Therapy in Neurological Diseases in Adults: A Systematic Review.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2021. 

  4. Cleveland Clinic. “Why Having a Pet (of Any Kind!) May Boost Your Mood and Keep Your Brain Healthy.” clevelandclinic.org, 2018. 

  5. Science Daily. “Stress Reduction Benefits from Petting Dogs, Cats.” sciencedaily.com, 2019. 

  6. American Heart Association. “5 Ways Pets Help with Stress and Mental Health.” heart.org, 2021.

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