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Heavy Petting

By Bob Leahy

May 14, 2012

Bob Leahy with (left to right), Dudley, Dougall and Peggy.

Bob Leahy with (left to right), Dudley, Dougall and Peggy.

Many people living with HIV have written about the importance of the pets in their life. But we tend to talk about that comfort, that support they provide in general terms. Exactly how does that support work, though? And are some pets better at it than others? Today, I'm going to drag my three critters in to the picture to help me out.

I've actually had a long history with pet therapy. Our black lab Baxter, now gone to pet heaven, was a fully trained St John's Ambulance Therapy Dog. He was brilliant at it too. Smart as a whip like most labs are, he also was possessed of that lovable goofiness that's common to the breed too. Take him in to a patient's room -- he played the local nursing homes' circuit for years -- and he was instant, tail wagging sunshine. There is, after all, something about the tactile experience of petting a dog and their ability to rekindle lost memories that works wonders in elderly patients. He loved it, they loved it. We only had to say "want to go see the old people?" and he was up like a flash. (Labs have a surprisingly large vocabulary of words and phrases they understand, by the way, even of the politically incorrect variety.)

I guess it's pretty clear that I'm a dog person. We have had cats -- at one point our household had five -- but that was too many, and when over time they passed away, we settled with just the dogs. Now this will likely get me in to hot water, but I'm going to suggest dogs are the ultimate animal to have around if you are poz, and can handle the high-maintenance challenges they come with. Others will prefer cats I'm sure, and perhaps we will even have some goldfish fanciers in the house, but it's dogs that do it for me.

The dogs vs. cats debate, by the way, can get pretty heated. And in fairness there is some truth in the expression "dogs drool, cat's rule" because where they are allowed to co-exist, and that can be surprisingly easy, it is quite often the case that the cat has the upper hand. Cats don't put up with nonsense; cats know how to take care of themselves too. And they certainly make great poz pets -- cuddly endearing and even talkative. Needy too -- and in the context of pets for poz peeps, needy is good, I think. Essentially it's good for us to have someone or something to look after, to cater to.

Cats or dogs, every animal -- and maybe every fish even -- is different. Different in needs, different in temperament , and very different in the role they play as both caregiver and "caregivee." Tale my there. Please.

"There's just something about dogs that makes you feel good. You come home, they're thrilled to see you. They're good for the ego."

-- Janet Schnellman

Let's start with Dougall, in the middle. Dougall is my dog. He looks stoic, doesn't he -- and he is. But he's also warm, giving and expressive at times. A clever pet like Dougall is like having a good listener in the house -- attentive, responsive and eager to please. He is the ultimate companion dog. If you can't find a boyfriend, get a lab instead.

The basset hound on the left, Dudley, is actually my partner's dog. Like many bassets, he's independent and hard to train. A stubborn dog like Dudley will provide you with a challenge, someone to test your relating skills on, and ultimately, with luck, master and win over as a friend. But be warned, while couch-potato can be their middle name, they also like to roam.

Peggy, the other basset on the right, is not a smart dog at all. In fact the number of commands she responds to is surprisingly small -- and all of them relate to food. This lack of fluency reflects not only a lack of smartness but also extreme laziness, but no matter, because Peggy is a cuddler. In the lexicon of supports that pets can provide, cuddling is right up there. In fact some would say it's the number one most desirable pet trait. Which is why Peggy sleeps right beside me; we share a pillow, despite her bad breath.

Can all these traits be combined in to one incredibly talented, challenging but cuddly super-pet? Probably not. But all pets are a work in progress, a continuing challenge, and one of pet ownership's real delights is seeing our animals change before us as our relationships with them evolve. That's not a characteristic of poz pet ownership in itself, but having something so elementally satisfying in our lives can only do our own health -- and numbers -- good, no?

"There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face."

-- Ben Williams

A footnote: does keeping dogs raise health concerns for owners with suppressed immune systems? I'm no scientist but I suspect someone with an undetectable viral load need have no real worries. But here's what 2009 research says on this topic. "Though some health professionals raise concerns regarding the safety of housing pets with immunocompromised individuals, in other cases the emotional benefits of pet ownership among patients with HIV and AIDS may outweigh the risks, so long as proper hygiene and reasonable precautions are maintained. Betty Carmack (1991) found that gay men with HIV or AIDS perceived their pets as providing affection, support, nurturance, and acceptance. They also said that the presence of their pets made it easier to talk to other people. Siegel, Angulo, Detels, Wesch, and Mullen (1999) found that participants in the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study with AIDS who owned pets reported less depression than participants with AIDS who did not own pets."

Finally, this article on Pet Ownership for People with HIV/AIDS is quite helpful for anybody with concerns.

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