Science + Technology

UCLA Researchers Find That AIDS Patients Who Own Pets are Less Likely to Suffer From Depression


Owning a pet may reduce the likelihood that men with AIDS will sufferfrom depression, according to a study by researchers at the UCLA Schoolof Public Health.

The study, the first to examine the possible health benefits of owninga pet among people with HIV or AIDS, is one of the largest scientific studiesto examine the health benefits of owning pets.

Surveying more than 1,800 gay and bisexual men, researchers found thatmen with AIDS who had close attachments with pets were significantly lesslikely to suffer from depression than men with AIDS who did not have apet companion.

"Pet ownership among men who have AIDS provides a certain levelof companionship that helps them cope better with the stresses of theirlives," said psychologist Judith Siegel, a UCLA professor of publichealth and lead author of the report. "This is one more study thatdemonstrates the health benefits that owning a pet can provide."

Researchers report in the April edition of the journal AIDS Care thatmen who had developed AIDS were much more likely to report symptoms ofdepression as compared to other gay and bisexual men. Men who were HIV-positivebut did not have AIDS were no more likely to be depressed than other menin the study.

While having AIDS was a risk factor for depression, owning a pet significantlyreduced the chances of having symptoms of depression, Siegel said.

Men with AIDS who did not own a pet were about three times more likelyto report symptoms of depression than men who did not have AIDS. But menwith AIDS who had pets were only about 50 percent more likely to reportsymptoms of depression, as compared to men in the study who did not haveAIDS.

"The benefit is especially pronounced when people are stronglyattached to their pets," Siegel said.

Previous studies by Siegel and other researchers have shown that petownership may offer many health benefits. For example, pet ownership decreasesvisits for medical care among the elderly, increases longevity among heartattack survivors and is associated with improved health status among personswith disabilities.

"The phenomenon cannot be explained simply by the extra exerciseone gets walking their dog - the emotional bond between the animal andthe owner adds something more," said Siegel. "Pet ownership isnot necessarily a substitute for human support, but it's another way toexpress and receive love."

While the UCLA study found that most AIDS patients were aware of thepossibility that pets could increase exposure to opportunistic infections,few had spoken to their physicians about the issue. Other research hasidentified the feces of cats and birds as potential sources of infectionsthat could be hazardous to people with impaired immunity.

"If people adopt safe pet handling practices - which include wearinggloves when cleaning a litter box or cage - the risk of infection is lowand appears to be outweighed by the personal benefits of pet ownership,"Siegel said.

The men in the study are participants in the Multicenter AIDS CohortStudy, a long-term study of the natural history of the AIDS epidemic. Themen lived in Baltimore, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Other authors of the study are Roger Detels of the UCLA School of PublicHealth, Frederick Angulo of the federal Centers for Disease Control andPrevention, Jerry Wesch of the Northwestern University School of Medicineand Anna Mullen of the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health.Funding for the study was provided by the National Institute of Allergyand Infectious Diseases, the National Cancer Institute and the Agency forHealth Care Policy and Research.



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