Study: HIV+ Women Cope Better With Pets

Phyllis and Bandit

I’m a dog lover. I’ve had many important dogs in my life- from the dog I got for my sixth birthday, Ruff- to Bandit and Phyllis, our dogs today. Animals can provide a lot of joy, comfort and support- and for a lot of persons with HIV, they often provide an excellent reason to take better care of themselves.

Science Daily reports today on a study showing that HIV+ women with pets cope much better than their petless counterparts. Excerpt:

(Allison) Webel set out to better understand how women manage their HIV/AIDS and stay on track to take their medications, follow doctors’ orders and live healthy lifestyles. She conducted 12 focus groups with 48 women to find out what they did to stay healthy. The women had an average age of 42, about 90 percent had children, and more than half were single.

During the focus groups, six predominant social roles emerged that helped and hindered these women in managing their illness: pet owner, mother/grandmother, faith believer, advocate, stigmatized patient, and employee. All roles had a positive impact except stigmatized patient, which prevented women from revealing their illness and seeking out appropriate supports.

“Much information is available about the impact of work and family roles, but little is known about other social roles that women assume,” Webel said.

Being a pet owner was an important surprise, added Webel, who collaborated with co-author Patricia Higgins, a professor of nursing at Case Western Reserve University.

“Pets — primarily dogs — gave these women a sense of support and pleasure,” Webel said.

When discussing the effect their pets have on their lives, the women weighed in. “She’s going to be right there when I’m hurting,” a cat owner said. Another said: “Dogs know when you’re in a bad mood…she knows that I’m sick, and everywhere I go, she goes. She wants to protect me.”

The human and animal bond in healing and therapy is being recognized, Webel said, as more animals are visiting nursing homes to connect to people with dementia or hospitals to visit children with long hospital stays.

I’m sure that this translates across genders, as well. I’ve known plenty of chronically ill men who have strong bonds with their pets.

Psychologically, it’s much more difficult to be depressed when there’s a pet in your life- taking care of someone/something other than yourself can be very beneficial and provide relief from feelings of isolation, sadness and fear. Organizations like PAWS (Pets Are Wonderful Support) have known this for years- that for animal lovers, nothing helps speed healing like the love of a pet- now science may make this an even more integral component of treating chronic illness….