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Here, Kitty Kitty

Why Pets Are Good for You

March/April 2001

One 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."

"A 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 human support.

Samma, Wolf, and Samantha

Test 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 Jimm died.

"I 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.

"I 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.


Jonathan Goldman's beloved Yorky, Rebel, also attended his partner's funeral. "Pets are part of your family," Goldman echoes.

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 got 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 feel better.

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 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.

"In 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."


Pet Tips

  • 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 affectionate.

  • 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 disease.

  • 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 from pets.

  • 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 interests you.

  • Volunteers at the Pet Loss Hotline help you grieve for your pets. Call 1-509-335-5704 or e-mail 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.

Pet Safety

  • 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 garbage.

  • Prevent your pet from hunting or eating other animals.

  • 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 nails.

  • 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 eating areas.

  • 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 spreading germs.

  • 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 been.

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 donation 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: or visit Also visit the website of the Gay & Lesbian Veterinary Medical Association,, which includes a link to the Healthy Pets, Healthy People website, established for immunocompromised people.

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This article was provided by Positively Aware. It is a part of the publication Positively Aware. Visit Positively Aware's website to find out more about the publication.
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