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

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

Surveying more than 1,800 gay and bisexual men, researchers found that men with AIDS who had close attachments with pets were significantly less likely to suffer from depression than men with AIDS who did not have a pet companion.

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

Researchers report in the April edition of the journal AIDS Care that men who had developed AIDS were much more likely to report symptoms of depression as compared to other gay and bisexual men. Men who were HIV-positive, but did not have AIDS were no more likely to depressed than other men in the study.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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