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Tiffany Glick/MEDILL

Pets aren't just cute company. Dogs and cats can help AIDS patients and those with disabilties to cope with the challenges.

Dogs and cats help HIV-AIDS patients cope

by Tiffany Glick
June 09, 2009

Scientists and animal-lovers alike know the health benefits of having a wet nose or a soft nuzzle greet you at the door.

Pets improve almost anyone's mental, social, and physiological health so, more than 20 years ago, Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS) formed in San Francisco as AIDS was becoming more prevalent. Founders realized that many AIDS patients were feeding their pets instead of themselves. People who were so ill and had lost so much didn't want to lose another friend.

PAWS continues to work to help AIDS patients and people with terminal or debilitating illnesses keep their pets.

Tiffany Glick, Medill Reports: Why did PAWS originally organize?

Andrea Brooks, PAWS Director of Education and Client Advocacy: PAWS started back in 1986 in the height of the AIDS epidemic. People who were really sick were getting their meals through the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the San Francisco Food Bank. People were getting sick very quickly, and there weren’t good meds to help them. And people were losing their jobs. And, because of stigma, they were losing connections to their family or friends, so a lot of support services sprang up at that time.

Individuals were getting food and then volunteers realized the clients were giving their meals to their animals, rather than eating the food themselves. And it really just kind of highlighted how intense the human-animal bond is, especially when you are losing everything else and you’re sick and feeling scared and people really needed that nourishment themselves. But they were giving to their animals first because they needed to keep their animal with them. At that time, some of the volunteers got together and started providing pet food through the human food banks, and that was in 1986. In 1987, the pet food bank became its own program, and that’s what PAWS became.

TG: What services does PAWS provide for someone who has a debilitating disease, such as AIDS?

AB: We have the pet food bank that people can come and access once a month and they can come either on-site or we can deliver to them. We also provide a free well clinic check-up every year in collaboration with one of our veterinary partners, as well as $200 per year towards any veterinary cost. We also provide in-home care, which is like cleaning the litter box for some one who is immune compromised or if they are physically unable to do it anymore, as well as dog walking.

We do housing advocacy to make sure that people are not being harassed by their landlords for having an animal, or evicted for having an animal in no-pet housing because there’s laws that protect them to have support animals. We also do emergency foster care if someone is hospitalized or evicted, as well as general education about the human-animal bond and how to stay healthy when having an animal.

TG: People who contract HIV/AIDS are often told by doctors to give up their pets. How come?

AB: Primarily one reason is concern about toxoplasmosis, someone who is immunocompromised getting toxo from the litter box. But really there are very basic guidelines, and we also put out information about that, of just what to do in terms of how to clean the litter box and what you need to do to protect yourself. When we started back in 1986 and 87, a lot of doctors were telling people to give up their animals, but at that time we started putting out information before the CDC did, on how to stay safe with your animal so that it is not a risk. Basically, the really simple guidelines primarily surround just basic hygiene. It isn’t necessary to give up your animal.

TG: Why is it important for someone to with a disease like AIDS to be able to keep a pet?

AB: Primarily, the companionship and love that everybody needs, when it comes from your animal, its completely unconditional. And when living with an illness, there are just constant daily struggles, no matter how much of a positive attitude you have. And dealing with medications and pain. And it could be hard just getting through the day everyday. But that love and companionship from the animal is really what gets people through, as well as added health benefits.

TG: What sorts of physical health benefits have been reported? 

AB: There are a lot that have been documented. Basically there are a lot of different types of studies about psychological benefits that people get, as well as like cardiovascular, or lowered blood pressure.

TG: What psychological benefits have you seen when someone with a disease like AIDS has an animal around?

AB: We help about 800 people per year now, and these are ongoing clients that we’re helping every month, and something that we frequently hear is that people’s animals are their reason for getting up in the morning. I think those anecdotal responses is really what keeps us all invested in doing this work and how essential it is. It’s really a quality of life issue, rather than just a nice, cute animal to be having. It gives people joy and meaning to their lives.