Why pets are good for you
by Enid Vázquez
week before he died, AIDS activist and writer Stephen Gendin
left very detailed instructions about the care of his beloved
little dog, Zoom.
What is this strong bond that so many
people feel for their pets—a passion even? Animal lovers say
that everyone gets sick and tired of you at some point or
another, but pets give you absolute, unconditional love.
But can they also make you healthy?
Chicago nurse Keren Hahn, the inspiration for this article,
strongly believes that people with HIV should have a pet.
“I’ll tell folks, ‘Oh, my God, your T-cells went up
really high.’ And they’ll say, ‘Oh, I got a new dog!’
Or, ‘I’m in love.’ Somebody needs to do a study,” she
says. (Maybe later we’ll look at falling in love.)
Before, when serious disease was much
more common in people with HIV, people with AIDS were often
told—incorrectly—to get rid of their pets for the sake of
their health. Today, that still happens too often.
The most knowledgeable sources counter
the ignorance. From the top of a Centers for Disease Control
webpage for people with HIV, are these words: “You do not
have to give up your pet.” The CDC goes on to say, “Most
people with HIV can and should keep their pets. Owning a pet
can be rewarding. Pets can help you feel psychologically and
even physically better.
Ken Gorczyca, a veterinarian and
co-founder of PAWS (Pets Are Wonderful Support), a non-profit
organization for pet owners with HIV, has written that, “For
the severely ill patient, animal companions can offer an
important source of pleasure, affection, and even a reason to
live. In a study of patients with cardiac disease, pet
ownership made a significant difference in survival regardless
of the severity of the cardiac disease or the type of pet. For
elderly patients and patients with disabilities,
animal-assisted therapy has affected physiological and
psychological improvement. Studies indicate watching fish in
an aquarium or petting a dog can lower blood pressure, even
among healthy individuals.”
lot of my clients will say their pet is the reason they’re
alive,” says Ilana Strubel, who like Gorczyca, is a
volunteer veterinarian with PAWS in San Francisco. “A lot of
people say, ‘If it weren’t for my pet, I would have no
reason to live.’ The benefits of pet companionship far
outweigh any risk to your health. The human-animal bond
motivates people to take care of themselves. One study found
that people with HIV who have pets were better at taking their
medications and following their doctor’s advice.”
Strubel said the health benefits of pets,
or animal companions, has been well-established over the past
10 years, including benefits to the immune system, and that
much more research is underway to tease out the hard numbers.
For example, research from the
Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study (MACS) has found that people
with HIV were less likely to suffer from depression if
they’re pet owners, especially if they did not have a lot of
Wolf and Samantha
Positive Aware Network Executive Director Dennis Hartke is one
of the healthiest people I know living with HIV. That’s
probably part genetics. But Dennis says he doesn’t know how
he would have gotten through the death of his partner Jimm
from AIDS more than 15 years ago had it not been for their two
dogs and their black cat. Very few people knew that they were
partners in life or that they had the AIDS virus. In the midst
of this severe isolation, it was Samma, a German Shepard mix,
Wolf, a Golden Retriever, and Samantha the cat—all rescued
animals—that continued to bring warmth to his life after
did not have a support network in place,” says Dennis.
“Pet owners love to talk to their animals. Sometimes they
listen well. And even when they don’t, they pretend.” He
says the companionship and continued routine of having to take
care of their three pets helped him stay strong. “It was
some place to focus my loss and my need for attention.
really do believe in the research that shows petting a dog
lowers your blood pressure. Pets are very relaxing, except
when they’re doing things they shouldn’t be doing,” he
jokes. “It’s really that unconditional love that’s been
bought over the years with food. And even when you don’t
feed them, they still pay attention to you—maybe that’s
why.” Be that as it may, Samma, Wolf and Samantha were
important enough to attend Jimm’s memorial service and
funeral. “They were like family,” says Dennis.
Goldman’s beloved Yorky, Rebel, also attended his
partner’s funeral. “Pets are part of your family,”
One researcher reported that during
experiments comparing how women respond to pressure when in
the presence of either their best friend or their dog, dogs
were better every time. Five widows had exactly the same
stories to tell about how their pets helped them get through
the death of their husbands. The researcher, Karen Allen,
Ph.D., was amazed at the identical circumstances. Each woman
said she appreciated the consolation of friends and family,
but most wanted to be alone with her dog. Each one thought
about their pet and carried something that belonged to it
close to them in a pocket (such as a dog toy or collar) during
the funeral service where the dog could not be brought.
Allen wrote about this finding: “The
feeling was that, with the dog, no social pretenses were
necessary, and no one was judging her ability to ‘bear
up.’ These women all said that the dog provided the
desirable qualities of a best friend (for example, listening,
physical contact, and empathy) without any undesirable
evaluative ones.… Perhaps certain situations call for
specific types of social support, and pets provide a unique
type that cannot be duplicated by a person.”
Goldman and his partner Roger had gotten
Rebel when Roger was bedridden due to AIDS, in 1990. He died
later that year. “Just having a dog alongside next to you
when you’re napping is very comforting,” says Goldman, a
volunteer with PAWS in San Francisco. Today Rebel, now
12-years-old, comforts Goldman when he becomes ill from one
HIV problem or another. And he encourages him to get out of
the house for walks.
Rebel, who’s only six-and-a-half
pounds, has marched with Goldman in San Francisco’s gay
pride parade for the past 11 years under the PAWS banner.
He’s the “official” pet of the National AIDS Update
Conference held by AmfAR (American Foundation for AIDS
Research) each year in San Francisco. He’s there to be
petted and adored, and of course, help the conference goers
As a PAWS volunteer, Goldman has many pet
stories to tell. He remembers one man with non-Hodgkin’s
lymphoma whose doctor encouraged him to give up his two birds.
He gave them up, then died six months later. “He was
heartbroken the entire six months,” Goldman says. Another
man who had had his cat for 18 years at the time of the
cat’s death was thinking of looking for a boyfriend to keep
him occupied, until a friend asked how many of his boyfriends
lasted for 18 years. He went out and got two cats.
my mind the epidemic really is an equal component between
physical health and mental health. Now that it’s more of a
chronic illness, we need a shift to dealing with mental
well-being, of which pets are a part,” says Goldman.
“Mental health pushes the physical health. And I believe
research will find some magical, mystical substance in dog
saliva that we benefit from when they lick our face.”
While there are a number of diseases that can be
caught from animals, cases of people with HIV/AIDS who have
contracted infections from their pets are rare.
Remember that some cats can be very
Puppies and kittens (less than nine months old)
should be avoided because they have a tendency to harbor more
infections. Also, puppies may be too much work for someone
with advanced disease. Plus, with older animals, you can see
whether their size and temperament agree with you.
Most birds pose a minimal risk for transmitting
PAWS recommends that people at risk do not keep
or handle reptiles.
Although caution should be exercised when
changing cat litter boxes, people with HIV disease are more
likely to be exposed to toxoplasmosis from ingesting
undercooked meat or through contact with oocyst
(egg)-contaminated soil than from contact with litter boxes.
In fact, HIV positive people contract infections more often
from contaminated food, water, soil, or even other people than
Precautions apply for children as well as
adults. However, children may want to snuggle more with their
pets. Some pets, like cats, may bite or scratch to get away
from children. Adults should be extra watchful and supervise
an HIV positive child’s handwashing to prevent infections.
San Francisco has a certification process for
people with disabilities whereby pets can be considered
“animal companions.” As such, they are akin to seeing eye
dogs and must be allowed in housing otherwise off-limits to
pets. They can also be taken along on public transportation,
among other privileges. Check your local laws if this idea
Volunteers at the Pet Loss Hotline help you
grieve for your pets. Call 1-509-335-5704 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Due to lack of funding, phone calls are returned collect.
Hours are generally during the school semester on Mondays
through Thursdays from 6:30 to 9 p.m., and Saturdays from 1 to
3 p.m., Pacific Time.
Feed your pet a commercial diet that is designed
for your animal and his or her stage of life.
Don’t feed your pet raw or undercooked meats
or unpasteurized milk. Keep in mind that microwaving may not
heat the meat sufficiently to kill organisms in it.
Never let your pet eat their own or another
animal’s feces. Do not allow birds to fly freely, in order
to avoid droppings.
Provide plenty of clean, fresh water. Don’t
let your pet drink from the toilet or root through the
Prevent your pet from hunting or eating other
Have all new animals examined by a veterinarian.
Take your pets to the veterinarian for a check
up at least once each year and keep vaccinations current.
Have your pet’s feces checked by a
veterinarian periodically for parasites. Have your cat
(particularly a new cat or an outdoor cat) checked for the
Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus
(FIV). These cats are more susceptible to infections.
Keep your animal’s toenails trimmed to
minimize the risk of your being scratched. If necessary, ask
your vet about rubber caps that can be placed on your cat’s
Use good flea control. A clean environment is
important. Keep your pet’s living and feeding areas clean.
Wash your pet’s bedding regularly
Stay away from animals that have diarrhea.
Neuter pets to avoid roaming and discharges.
Keep the litter box away from the kitchen and
Change the litter box daily. It takes the
toxoplasma parasite at least 24 hours to become infectious. If
possible, have someone do it who’s not at risk.
Use disposable plastic liners and change them
each time you change the litter.
Don’t dump! If inhaled, the dust could
possibly infect you. Gently seal the plastic liner with a
twist tie and place in a plastic garbage bag for disposal. Use
rubber gloves. Remove disposable gloves inside out to avoid
Disinfect the litter box at least once a month
by filling it with boiling water and letting it stand for five
minutes. This will kill the toxoplasma organism.
Always wash your hands after cleaning the litter
box (soap up for at least 30 seconds, use warm water).
Wear rubber gloves when cleaning an aquarium or
when handling fish. Fish suspected of having Mycobacterium or
any fish showing unusual lumps should be killed and the
aquarium should be disinfected before new fish are introduced.
Rinse a bite wound or scratch right away with
plenty of cool running water. Wash the area with a mild soap
or with a tamed iodine solution such as Betadine solution (not
Betadine soap) that has been diluted with water. After this
first aid, always contact your physician.
Always wash your hands well with soap and water
after playing with or caring for animals, or their care items,
and especially before eating or smoking. In the event of an
accident, clean up the mess with a disinfectant (an ounce of
bleach in a quart of water works nicely to kill many
infectious organisms), then wash your hands thoroughly. Better
yet, wear gloves, or have someone not at risk clean it up.
Don’t let your pet lick your mouth or a wound
on your face or body. You never know where that tongue has
Taken primarily from Safe Pet
Guidelines by Pets Are Wonderful Support and HIV/AIDS
& Pet Ownership by Tuskegee University College of
Veterinary Medicine. The suggested Alternative Treatments for each PAWS
brochure is $1, including the ones on different animals.
Contact PAWS Education Department, 3248 16th Street, San
Francisco, CA 94103; (415) 241-1460; e-mail: email@example.com
or visit www.pawssf.org.