Pets are important members of your family because they provide support and companionship in a unique way.
Family systems are a complex network of multiple individuals who become habituated to responding to each other in certain ways and having certain roles. For healthy families, this means everyone feels loved and supported by participating in their role in the family. For families in which one or more members struggle with addiction, these systems can lead to codependency, stress, fear, mental illness, further addiction problems, abuse, and hardship.
Psychologists have conducted several studies on children, parents, and other human members of families who have one member who is struggling with addiction; however, there is less information on how pets interact with owners who suffer from addiction. Being around drugs and alcohol and experiencing emotional, nutritional, and even physical instability due to an owner who struggles with addiction can greatly impact the health of a pet.
Most pets are much smaller than their human companions, so being around drugs or alcohol puts the animals at greater risk of side effects, poisoning, or long-term harm than the average person. The Pet Poison Helpline lists several substances that are known toxins to animals.
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Drugs that affect the human brain are likely to affect your pet’s brain, but the same dose that is safe for you can be unsafe for them. For example, as recreational and medical marijuana legislation is taken up by more states, emergency veterinarians are reporting that more people are bringing in their animals due to marijuana toxicity. While marijuana rarely causes overdoses in humans, too much can lead to uncomfortable effects. For dogs, cats, birds, and other pets, a dose of marijuana can make them violently ill and lead to death.
As in humans, smoking can lead to several chronic health problems in pets, like heart disease, high blood pressure, oral problems, lung damage and disease, and cancer. One study showed that dogs that live with smokers are more likely to be obese, which can further impact their health.
Animals are also very susceptible to effects from thirdhand smoke, which is the residue that clings to carpet, furniture, hair, and other surfaces. The toxins can be licked up, picked up by fur, or otherwise accidentally ingested.
There is some evidence that animals can tell when humans are intoxicated or abusing drugs. This is in part behavioral (since your behavior changes when you are intoxicated) and in part olfactory.
For instance, dogs have reportedly been able to smell the odor of cancer in some people. They are used to find drugs hidden in bags, cases, cars, or on people. Dogs may be able to smell intoxicants if you are impaired.
If your behavior is erratic from being high, your pet will likely not want to be around you, or they may cower in your presence. Conversely, if you are sick after being intoxicated or starting to pass out from too much alcohol or opioids, they may stay by your side.
Because of the desperation, some people experience due to their addiction and cravings, and some people may try to use their pets to get drugs. Veterinarians are reporting that some people who struggle with addiction to opioids abuse their animals and take them to the vet to get a painkiller prescription and then take their pet’s medication. While these are extreme cases, it highlights that intense cravings and behavioral changes associated with addiction can lead to harmful behaviors toward others, including beloved pets.
Although pets whose owners struggle with addiction may be at physical and emotional risk, the animals can be a great source of support and comfort during rehabilitation. Social support is one of the core components of addiction treatment, and pets offer unconditional care and love when life is hardest.
In a survey of pet owners, 74 percent reported that they had better mental health from owning a pet, and 75 percent reported that a friend or family member’s mental health improved after they got a pet.
Being in treatment and returning to daily life can be stressful, exhilarating, and isolating times in your life. Having a pet to keep you company or reigniting a relationship with your pet can ease a lot of suffering.
(May 2, 2016) Addiction as a Family Affliction. Psychology Today. Retrieved April 2019 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/some-assembly-required/201605/addiction-family-affliction
Poisons. Pet Poison Helpline. Retrieved April 2019 from https://www.petpoisonhelpline.com/poisons/
(October 27, 2014) Be a Friend to Man’s Best Friend: Keep Marijuana Away from Your Dog. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) for Teens. Retrieved April 2019 from https://teens.drugabuse.gov/blog/post/be-friend-man-s-best-friend-keep-marijuana-away-your-dog
(March 14, 2019) Smoking Around Pets. Vaping Daily.com. Retrieved April 2019 from https://vapingdaily.com/support/healthy-pets/
(2016) Can Your Dog Tell If You Use Drugs? Bark Post.com. Retrieved April 2019 from https://barkpost.com/discover/can-dogs-sense-drug-use/
(April 17, 2018) Pets, Vets, and Opioids. American Veterinarian. Retrieved April 2019 from https://www.americanveterinarian.com/journals/amvet/2018/april2018/pets-vets-and-opioids
(August 21, 2017) For Better Mental Health, Experience the Pet Effect. Mental Health America. Retrieved April 2019 from https://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/blog/better-mental-health-experience-pet-effect