Yes, Pets Can Help You Stay Sober
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Yes, Pets Can Help You Stay Sober


Pets in RecoveryThis post was originally published on July 15, 2016.

Amends are a serious business in recovery. And, if it were possible, I really wish I could make amends to my dead dog Norman.

In the final months of my drinking, I was fully immersed in the Big Misery that was me. My one faithful companion, my aging dog Norman, got to be a part of this show. Norman had been my beloved sidekick for many years at this point. He had seen me through a terrible breakup, buying my first home, getting married, two moves and children. The children part left him less than enthused, but he dealt with it. That was his way. He was a good dog.

I forgot he was a good dog, the last months of my drinking. I forgot about his patience with the kids. I forgot his friendship. I forgot it all, because all I could remember was that I wanted a drink. His doleful eyes would follow me, from kitchen to couch and I rarely reached to pat his head, to tell him “Good boy.” I forgot about him. I was so busy keeping my two small boys alive, and with my addiction that was crashing through everything.

Sometimes I wake in the middle of the night, with a dream about Norman still on the tip of my brain. We are usually still single, Norman and I, driving around in my ’95 Jeep, singing along to the Black Eyed Peas. I see him lean into the breeze and sniff at it, delicately. In the darkness I whisper a prayer of amends to him. “I am so sorry, sweet boy,” I say. I loved him so.

All these years later I am the owner of three pets, all misfits. It is against my core to actually own an animal who doesn’t have a troubled past, so all three are from the pound. And so, now, I am smushed up in a house with my two small children, a tall husband, two cats and one very nervous dog.

I love it.

The leader of this pack is Steve, a huge white cat who could win Olympic gold for his floor-flopping prowess. His personality channels Keanu Reeves in that Excellent Adventure movie. He’s mellow, yet up for anything. I mean, when two small boys try to fit him into their space ship made out of laundry baskets and some duct tape—he’s all for it. They pick him up and drag him all over the house and he just patiently waits until they put him down to give them a gentle head butt and start purring. The cat is a guru of calm.

In fact, on my more stressful days, when the Serenity Prayer, six or seven La Croix and at least two devotionals from recovery literature have not really done the “calm down, stay sober, just keep breathing” trick—I go pick up Steve and sit down on the couch. I press his thick fur to my face, wait for the soft vibration of his purr and sigh deeply. The cat is better than a sedative. He is just that good.

Steve follows me around the house, aware somehow, that he must always flop around me. He orbits my world, his huge white belly a beacon of furry goodness for me whenever I need it. He seems to accept this job with relish, knowing that he will receive lots of cat treats and a soft bed in return. The cat is the Friends theme song that we want to find annoying but can’t, insisting that, yes, he’ll be there for me, whenever needed. He sticks in my head, just like the song, with his purring and insistence that he must be directly underfoot at all times. “Dude,” he tells me. “Just let go and let God. It’s all good.”

Bob is another matter.

Bob is tense. In fact, she is so tense that she once shot straight up in the air because I poured her food too loudly. She leaks stress (and pee) all over our house. And, she is missing a tail. Bob resents the hell out of her name because she is she, and the other, rather obvious, reason. We have no idea what happened to the rest of Bob’s tail, but she has a lot of resentments, and so she fits in here just fine. When we first brought Bob home, we had to keep her in our bathroom for almost an entire week before we could get all the hissing and terror under control. Bob is a case study in fear. At one point in her life, that tail went missing, as did her trust of everyone around her. And so, she became my project. Of course.

“Bob,” I would whisper, with a tin of canned tuna, “Acceptance is key. Now, unstick yourself from the back of that cat carrier and eat some tuna!” She stayed stuck. I then tried to buy her love with some summer sausage. Finally, she relented and came forward for a bit of my husband’s very favorite deli cajun chicken. And as I watched her delicately nibble on his pastrami that cost over nine dollars a pound, I adored her. She had expensive tastes. We would be friends. Someday.

Over the next months I pulled out all the stops. She had a clean litter box every day, and at times when the boys were playing too loudly, I would firmly remind them, “Shhh! You will scare the cat!” to which they would look around in confusion. Having never actually seen Bob themselves and looking over at Steve purring away whilst being stuffed inside a Candyland box, they were wondering about my sanity. I didn’t care. I needed Bob to come around. I was on a mission.

Four months and about $20 of deli meat later, I was rewarded. I was upstairs, cleaning out a closet, when I sat back on my heels for a short rest. Then I felt it. Two soft little paws, resting on my knees. Bob was right there, staring at me deeply. I carefully placed a hand on her tense little head. She leaned into the petting with delirious glee, and fluffs of hair decorated the hallway, my shirt, and basically the entire second floor. She needed a good grooming, as her hiding away had pretty much made her a matted mess. And so, we hung out. And from then on, Bob has been my silent shadow. She cuddles with me at night. She follows me into the bathroom in the early mornings. She is there, but oh so quiet. She trusts me, and with every grooming session that leaves me sneezing, I soak in her cat faith. When you are in recovery and know at one point in your life you were a non-trustworthy mess, you’ll take it anywhere you can get it.

Bob still has no patience for my children. And when Hosmer, our dog, came on the scene, she disappeared for a few days. But I am still her chosen human, and I am grateful. I like a project. And, I must admit, I like the devotion. It feeds a part of me that needs to be told, “I pick you. Just you. Everyone else is crazy here, but you? You’re okay.”

Having pets in recovery fills a void. It’s difficult to explain for those who find animals a nuisance; who don’t like the fur or the vet bills, or the endless cat box. But for me? They work my recovery right along with me. Hosmer gets me out of the house every day for a walk, where I pray and look at the sky and feel grateful. It’s a daily meeting. I know Hos listens as I talk to my Higher Power. His ears cup back as I pray or question or simply rant for a bit. Perhaps he is learning something new, too. Or perhaps, he thinks I am a bit nuts. Either way, he stays quiet about it.

I know my family needs me. I bandage and kiss my boys’ scraped knees and cook everyone mediocre meals. They are all my world, and my life. There are endless responsibilities and adulting that go along with this sober existence, and I am up for the challenge. But my pets? They need some food, water and not much else. Instead, they give. They dole out furry serenity. They are a daily devotion read to me, with bad doggie breath. Pets have the whole “keeping it simple” thing down to perfect science, after all.

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About Author

Dana speaks and writes about recovery, momhood, and beating the perfection myth. An English teacher for over twenty years, she decided to take up a writing at, while mothering two babies, because she had so much free time. Her first book, Bottled was selected as a Kansas Notable book in 2016. Her second book, How to Be Perfect Like Me is out August 2018. She had a horrible time with edits on this book and fully appreciates the irony.