Over a decade ago, a friend who was getting sober told me her drinking made her animals sad. At the time I was skeptical—which is ironic, because my addiction meant I couldn’t get close enough to animals to understand them. I didn’t know it then, but my alcohol use was causing animal allergies.
Six months after I quit drinking, those allergies went away. It turns out that having more than two glasses of wine a day (much less than I consumed) nearly doubles the risk of developing allergies, according to a study published in Clinical and Experimental Allergy. Other studies have found that IgE, antibodies produced by the immune system in response to allergies, are increased in people with Alcohol Use Disorder. IgE levels decrease after abstinence.
I sometimes say that the ability to have a cat is an unexpected bonus of my sobriety, but it’s more than a bonus. Pets can be wonderful for recovery and mental health. When the pandemic came to the US and streets emptied, so did pet adoption centers. In April, Chicago Animal Care and Control announced that they had run out of adoptable animals for the first time ever. DC Paws reported that it had 300 foster applications over a four-day period in March; normally they have about 60 regular foster homes. People wanted a companion during quarantine to help lower their stress and cheer them up.
In recovery, pets give people something important to be responsible for: another life. My friend’s decade-ago comment gets at something deep. Pets are sensitive to changes in behavior—and they are around all the time to notice those changes. A relationship with a pet is similar to a relationship with a human; you perceive each other’s moods. My friend’s pets were a motivating factor for her sobriety. She was supposed to be responsible for her animals, and she felt she was letting them down.
A study published in the journal BMC Psychiatry asked people to map who and what was most important for their mental health. 60% of participants who had pets put them in the most valued circle of support. People interviewed for the study said pets forced them to be more present when they wanted to retreat from the world, didn’t judge when they felt like a lot of others did, distracted them in negative moments, and made them laugh.
Since the pandemic, I’ve only left my house to run or walk. When I come home, my cat sprints down the steps to greet me as though I’ve been gone for years. I am someone who, gratefully, has a lot of (human) support in their life, but most humans don’t express excitement so unselfconsciously. To someone who lost a lot of relationships in addiction, that kind of greeting would be even more meaningful. We talk so much about ending the stigma—and we need to—but with pets there is never stigma. Emotional support animals are a thing for a reason.
Our facilities Atlanta Detox Center and Atlanta Center for Mental Health have a certified therapy dog, Maybelle. When people enter treatment scared and stressed, she makes them smile. When Maybelle needed surgery to remove a tumor, her community rallied around her. The relationship with animals is mutually beneficial.
There’s an aphorism that when you get sober, you should get a plant. If it’s still alive after a year, you’re ready for a pet. The main point is that only after you’ve kept the pet alive another year are you ready for romance, but it’s all the more reason to continue staying sober. The more clear-headed and present you are, the better pet owner you will be. If you are able to adopt an animal during this time, it could bring much-needed joy to you and the pet. While adoptions are surging, there are always animals in need of homes.
If you are struggling with a mental health or substance use disorder during this time, there is hope. TruHealing Centers is open throughout the COVID-19 crisis, with hospital-grade sanitization and telehealth options so that you feel safe in treatment. At our recovery centers across the country, we will help you build a life in long-term recovery. Call an admissions specialist at 410-593-0005 to find out which facility is right for you—you might even get to meet Maybelle!