Ask AA: Should I Get a Pet While in a Recovery Program?

When you’re in a recovery program for drug or alcohol addiction, you may find yourself wondering if it’s a good idea to get a pet. Pets can offer numerous benefits, but they also involve a certain level of responsibility that you may not be ready for, depending on where you are in the recovery process.

In addition to the usual questions, you should consider some very specific details before getting a pet while in recovery. Those details include whether you will be able to walk a dog several times a day or if you are home enough to give your pet the amount of care it requires and deserves.

An individual in recovery should also consider the following factors before deciding to get a pet.


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How Major Life Changes Can Impact a Recovery Program

People in recovery are discouraged from making any major life changes for at least a year.1 Major life changes include getting a new job, moving, having a baby, going back to school, and starting a new relationship. Not only can significant changes turn into major sources of stress—something that can impede your recovery—these changes can also take up a great deal of your time and attention, ultimately distracting from your recovery. During addiction treatment, it’s important to focus on yourself, self-care, and your mental and emotional health.1 This may mean postponing or reconsidering other life goals for a while.

Getting a pet can also qualify as a major life change, even if you’ve had pets before. Pets require a great deal of time and attention, especially if they are young. Puppies or shelter dogs who have never lived indoors tend to require a lot of training. A new pet can disrupt your schedule and require changes to your living environment. Vaccinations and regular veterinary care can be expensive. All of these things can divert  attention from your recovery and increase the risk of relapse.

Relapse Prevention

Relapse is not something that happens suddenly. Rather, it is a gradual process marked by different stages.1 Writing for the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, Steven M. Melemis, MD, Ph.D., explains that the process of relapse begins weeks or even months before any drug or alcohol use occurs.1

Each stage of recovery involves different milestones and presents different risks. Becoming familiar with the various risks and warning signs of each step can give you a greater chance of preventing relapse before you engage in drug or alcohol use.2

Stages of Relapse

  • The first stage is known as emotional relapse. During this stage, you aren’t thinking of using again, but your emotions are setting you up for relapse in the future. Poor self-care is common during this stage and may manifest as poor eating or sleeping habits.1 Self-care also includes taking good care of your emotional health. You may feel exhausted, restless, and irritable. You may also be unkind to yourself and not give yourself permission to have fun.
  • The second stage of relapse is mental relapse. You may begin to crave drugs or alcohol again or find yourself thinking about people and places associated with your past use. You may start looking for opportunities to use again, plan to use, or think of scenarios where drug or alcohol use may be acceptable.1 Occasional thoughts of using are normal during recovery, but the thought patterns that occur during mental relapse are different. You may find yourself bargaining—for example, giving yourself permission to drink alcohol while on vacation.
  • The final stage is physical relapse, in which you begin using again. Even having just one drink can quickly lead to uncontrolled drug or alcohol use. Even more importantly, it can also lead to a return to negative thought patterns, which in turn increases the risk of continued physical relapse.1

Without an understanding of these stages and warning signs, you may assume relapse prevention simply involves saying “no” when the opportunity to use presents itself. However, most people who find themselves confronted with an opportunity to use are usually in the final stage of relapse, which is difficult to stop.

Making major life changes during recovery does not mean that you will experience a relapse. However, it often makes it hard to devote the necessary time and energy your recovery requires. Any major change—whether it’s getting a new pet, starting a new job, or going back to school—can make it difficult to focus on self-care, both physically and emotionally. By the time you notice you are neglecting your well-being, you could be past the point of emotional relapse and well into mental relapse.

Benefits of Having a Pet in a Recovery Program

It’s important to point out that having a pet provides numerous benefits, some of which can be particularly helpful to people in recovery. Feelings of loneliness tend to be common in people with substance use disorders,3 and isolating is a warning sign of emotional relapse.1 Animals have proven to help reduce feelings of loneliness and can also increase feelings of social support.4

Animal interaction can also provide certain health benefits. Being around animals can help reduce blood pressure and levels of cortisol, a hormone related to stress.4 A pet could also help you achieve specific health or life goals. For example, if you have a goal to exercise more or to spend more time outdoors, walking a dog could help in both cases. Caring for a dog can also help you stick to a regular routine, which can have mental and physical health benefits.5

Emotional Support Animals vs. Psychiatric Service Dogs

You may qualify for an emotional support animal (ESA) or a psychiatric service dog (PSD). ESAs provide companionship and can help alleviate symptoms of depression, anxiety, or PTSD.

To qualify for an ESA, you must have a letter from a licensed healthcare provider. If you are already in therapy, ask your current therapist if you meet the criteria for an emotional support animal. Typically, a diagnosis of depression or anxiety is enough to qualify. After you have a letter from a therapist, submit the letter to a certifying organization, such as the ESA Registration of America.6 For a small fee, you can register your animal as an emotional support animal and receive a certificate.

It’s important to note that emotional support animals are not service animals and are not protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. They may not be allowed in some places where service dogs are allowed, such as stores and restaurants. Always check ahead of time before attempting to take your ESA into a business where animals are typically not allowed.

People with conditions such as PTSD, schizophrenia, or other mental illness may qualify for a psychiatric service dog.7PSDs are specially trained to perform certain tasks. For example, they can be trained to wake an individual during nightmares, bring medication, and provide pressure during a panic attack. If you aren’t sure whether you require an ESA or a PSD, talk to a qualified therapist. If your animal will assist you in performing tasks you are unable to do on your own, you may qualify for a PSD. If the animal is primarily for companionship, it will be considered an ESA.

Animal-assisted therapy may also be an option to treat certain conditions and supplement treatment plans when available. Therapy animals are owned by the provider you see or a private individual who offers their therapy time as a service.


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What to Do if You Want to Get a Pet

If you are in recovery and want to get a pet, it’s essential to be honest with yourself about where you are in the recovery process and your ability to care for an animal. Alcoholics Anonymous often recommends members get a plant before getting a pet. Having a plant allows you to take care of something without the level of responsibility required for a pet.

Caring for plants offers certain recovery benefits as well: research shows that plants have a calming effect and can help improve concentration.8 However, plants don’t offer the same benefits as a pet in terms of reducing feelings of loneliness and isolation. If you are particularly concerned about feeling isolated, you may want to start with a low-maintenance pet, such as a fish, as long as you can care for it.

You can also surround yourself with animals without committing to owning a pet. Try putting a birdbath or bird feeder outside to create a welcoming habitat for animals.

Before committing to getting a pet, talk to trusted sources about whether getting a pet is the right choice for you. Your therapist, treatment team, AA sponsor, and loved ones will be able to help you weigh the pros and cons and decide on your next best steps.

For information about treatment options for you or a loved one, call 800-948-8417 Info iconCalls are forwarded to paid advertisers  today.


  1. Melemis, S. M. (2015). Relapse prevention and the five rules of recovery. The Yale journal of biology and medicine, 88(3), 325–332.
  2. Bennett, G. A., Withers, J., Thomas, P. W., Higgins, D. S., Bailey, J., Parry, L., & Davies, E. (2005). A randomised trial of early warning signs relapse prevention training in the treatment of alcohol dependence. Addictive behaviors, 30(6), 1111–1124.
  3. Hosseinbor, M., Yassini Ardekani, S. M., Bakhshani, S., & Bakhshani, S. (2014). Emotional and social loneliness in individuals with and without substance dependence disorder. International journal of high risk behaviors & addiction, 3(3), e22688.
  4. National Institutes of Health News in Health. (2018, February). The power of pets.
  5. Arlinghaus, K. R., & Johnston, C. A. (2018). The importance of creating habits and routine. American journal of lifestyle medicine, 13(2), 142–144.
  6. The ESA Registration of America. (2021). Emotional support animal registration: what you should know.
  7. Mental Health America. How do I get a service animal?
  8. Texas A&M Agrilife Extension. Health and well-being benefits of plants.
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