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.
"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.
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."
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: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.pawssf.org. Also visit the website of the Gay & Lesbian Veterinary Medical Association, www.lgvma.org, which includes a link to the Healthy Pets, Healthy People website, established for immunocompromised people.