Pets Provide Health Benefits for People Living with HIV
If you're HIV-positive and sometimes just don't feel like getting out of bed; if you're finding yourself more and more depressed or isolated; or you're just feeling blue, you might want to listen to the advice of former President Harry Truman: "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog." Truman, of course, was cracking wise about the cutthroat atmosphere in our nation's capital. But plain-speaking Give 'Em Hell Harry was exactly right - no matter where you live.
Pets provide companionship, they relieve stress and provide unconditional love - in both directions. They give the owner a sense of responsibility for another living being, require a day to be scheduled, and - for dogs at least - mean daily physical exercise whether you feel like it or not.
Study after study has born out what we animal lovers always knew, that pets bring tangible benefits into their owners' lives. In May, as the New York Times reported, a panel of experts at the American Heart Association, after reviewing years of data, concluded that "owning a dog may protect you from heart disease."
The most obvious benefit of owning a dog is the requirement for daily exercise, As the owner of two very active pit bull mixes, I can attest to that. Whether I'm sick or well, hung over or feeling low, I know I can't get out of at least two long and several more short walks. Each time I have to force myself to get out, I inevitably feel better afterwards.
Cat owners might not get as much activity out of their pets, but the psychological and consequent physical benefits equal those for their canine counterparts. Pet owners have demonstrably lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Just petting a cat or dog or having one near significantly lowers stress levels. Yonassan Gershom has noted that "dog owners get more exercise, they take better care of themselves because they feel responsible for the dog, they relax while petting the dog, they are less lonely because of the dog."
So much research has confirmed this that nursing homes and now even prisons (where stress levels are understandably through the roof) conduct regular programs where shelters bring in dogs. For prisoners, they have the additional benefit of creating empathy even among the most street-hardened inmates.
Among HIV-positive people, these benefits become more significant. Just last year, a study explained that pets help HIV-positive women manage their lives by giving them a positive social role. Another study showed that single pet owners were as reliable in taking their HIV meds at scheduled times as parents or grandparents, full-time workers, activists or those with a strong religious faith; in other words, those with something grounding their lives. If you are laid up in the hospital, knowing there’s a pet waiting at home to be taken care of - and to take care of you - provides as much a spur to getting well as a bookshelf of self-help guides.
One study participant pointed out one of the most important - and until recently, unheralded functions of a pet (at least by the scientific community; pet owners have always been aware of this): It can sense its owner’s moods, when the owner is ailing or even when the owner needs help and might not even realize it.
AIDS service organizations have become so aware of the benefits that many now have programs to help people with HIV keep their pets if they’re having trouble meeting expenses. Organizations like PAWSLA are dedicated specifically to this.
The big question mark is whether having an animal in your kitchen, bathroom and bed might be a health risk, particularly for those whose immunity is severely compromised.
The quick answer is: No. Experts agree that the benefits outweigh the risks. That said, there are certain risks involved.
Animals can carry casual germs that won’t affect people with normally functioning immune systems are not susceptible. For that matter, so do humans. But living in close contact with an animal can produce infections that cause diarrhea, skin lesions or more serious ailments. One thing they do not carry, incidentally, is any form of HIV that can spread to humans.
These risks, however, are low for most people. And nearly everyone can protect himself by taking a few very simple precautions:
• Always wash your hands well after touching an animal, especially before handling food.
• Try as much as possible to keep your pet away from tainted food. That includes what they pick up on the street, toilet water, garbage, other animals’ stools or prey such as birds or rodents.
• If your pet has diarrhea, it could be only temporary; dogs and cats have a mechanism that allows them to get rid of bad stuff they’ve ingested through vomiting or bowel movements. But if it lasts for a few days, it might be a good idea to have a friend take it to the vet - and keep it temporarily until it’s completely cured.
• Adopt only healthy pets. There are plenty of people willing to take on the responsibility of helping a sick animal. You’re already doing a good deed when you take an animal out of the shelter. You don’t have to go the distance.
• Stay away from all strays or other people’s pets that may not look healthy.
• Never allow your skin come into contact with animal waste.
• Don’t let your pet lick your face or go anywhere near a cut or wound. It’s probably a good idea to train your pet not to lick you at all. It can show affection in other ways.
• And so can you. Don’t kiss your pet.
• Keep it clean by regular bathing and do what you have to do to ensure it’s not carrying fleas or tics.
• Stay with cats and dogs. That means no reptiles or exotic animals such as ferrets.
• Don’t go near the wading pool in a doggie run.
The biggest issue involving domestic animals is the litter box. This is a petri dish of germs. Try to get a caregiver to empty and clean the box. If you have to do it yourself, wear long rubber gloves - and wash your hands well anyway with plenty of soap afterward. Dog owners, make sure you pick up your dog’s waste from the street with a strong bag, and, yes, wash your hands as soon as you can.
Also, cat owners need to keep kitty’s nails clipped so it can’t scratch you. All that said, if your cat stays indoors, it probably won’t have any transmittable diseases, but it’s best to stay on the safe side.
Chicago physician Robert Garofalo had spent his career helping HIV adolescents at the Children’s Hospital of Chicago, where he heads the Gender, Sexuality and HIV Prevention Center. When he discovered that he, too, was HIV-positive, he went through the same feelings of being stigmatized and hopelessness.
Although he had never owned a pet before, after adopting a dog, his attitude did a 180-degree turnaround. He was so inspired by his own experience that he founded an organization named after his dog, Fred Says, to improve the lives of teens living with HIV.
You don’t have to go that far. But after you adopt a companion animal, you will undoubtedly find a renewed sense of purpose and that joie de vivre, the joy of simply being alive, that may be missing in your life.
This story is part of our special report titled "Living Well with HIV." Want to read more? Here's the full list.