Research Blog—Companion Animals and People Living with HIV
For many, pets are a large part of our lives and provide all sorts of comfort and companionship. However, few might guess that they can and do also provide measurable health benefits to their owners. Research increasingly shows just that, particularly in the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS.
Living with HIV/AIDS is related to greater risk of depression, anxiety, alcohol and drug use, and suicidality , so the importance of the need to improve the mental health of those living with HIV/AIDS is apparent. Among HIV positive gay and bisexual men diagnosed with AIDS who had less social support, pet ownership was associated with decreased depression symptoms . Other studies found that HIV positive individuals with companion animals had higher emotional wellbeing and fewer instances of HIV-related unsupportive social interactions than non-pet-owning peers and that owning a companion animal can offer structure and comfort that make managing their illnesses easier [3, 4]. Companion animals have also been shown to reduce stress and help ameliorate loneliness among this population .
Studies also indicate that pet ownership is related to improved physical health across several physical parameters. One study found that dog ownership among gay males in San Francisco was associated with increased CD4 cell count and medication adherence . Further, the same study discusses how exercise needs of pets in the form of walking can increase physical activity among their owners.
Still, some professionals identify pets as sources of infections like toxoplasmosis, giardiasis, and cryptosporidium in the lives of people with weakened immune systems, as some living with HIV are [7-9]. With less immune protection comes increased likelihood of contracting these diseases. However, by following some precautionary measures this risk is reduced, and the positive health effects of living with pets can outweigh these concerns. These measures include wearing gloves when cleaning litter boxes, keeping claws trimmed, and maintaining pets’ health with regular vet visits .
While several of the cited studies are quantitative in nature, the specific mechanisms by which companion animals have such positive effects on their owners are not well understood. Proposed hypotheses include that pet owners assuming the role of caretaker causes the pet owner to adopt healthier self-preservation habits in order to provide for their dependent, the pet. Another possibility is that the kind of unconditional affection from pets, which is different from that provided by human relationships, can help with the stress of dealing with a chronic illness like HIV.
Regardless, our furry friends do much to improve the lives of people living with HIV and we owe them, at least, a scratch behind the ears. For some first-person accounts of how dogs have improved the lives of people living with HIV, check out the photo project, When Dogs Heal.
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1. Moore, D. J., & Posada, C. (2013). HIV and psychiatric co-morbidities: what do we know and what can we do. Psychology and AIDS Exchange Newsletter, American Psychological Association, 1.
2. Siegel, J. M., Angulo, F. J., Detels, R., Wesch, J., & Mullen, A. (1999). AIDS diagnosis and depression in the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study: The ameliorating impact of pet ownership. AIDS Care, 11(2), 157-170.
3. Hutton, V. E. (2014). Companion Animals and Wellbeing When Living with HIV in Australia. Anthrozoös, 27(3), 407-421. doi: 10.2752/175303714X14023922797823
4. Allen, J. M., Kellegrew, D. H., & Jaffe, D. (2000). The experience of pet ownership as a meaningful occupation. Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy, 67(4), 271-278. doi: 10.1177/000841740006700409
5. Carmack, B. J. (1991). The role of companion animals for persons with AIDS/HIV. Holistic Nursing Practice, 5(2), 24-31.
6. Saberi, P., Neilands, T. B., & Johnson, M. O. (2013). Association between dog guardianship and HIV clinical outcomes. Journal of the International Association of Providers of AIDS Care (JIAPAC), 2325957413488832. doi: 10.1177/2325957413488832
7. Irwin, P. J. (2002). Companion animal parasitology: a clinical perspective. International Journal for Parasitology, 32(5), 581-593. doi: 10.1016/S0020-7519(01)00361-7
8. Jacob, J., & Lorber, B. (2015). Diseases Transmitted by Man’s Best Friend: The Dog. Microbiology Spectrum, 3(4). doi: 10.1128/microbiolspec.IOL5-0002-2015
9. Esch, K. J., & Petersen, C. A. (2013). Transmission and epidemiology of zoonotic protozoal diseases of companion animals. Clinical Microbiology Reviews, 26(1), 58-85. doi: 10.1128/CMR.00067-12
10. Dogs. (2014, April 30). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved April 28, 2016 from http://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/pets/dogs.html.