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Sources of Emotional Support – On Four Legs

My sister, animal rights activist and author Jill Howard Church of Atlanta, Georgia, recently wrote an excellent piece recently on the history of the portrayal of gay and lesbian characters on television, even though she is straight with a husband and two kids and I’m the gay one in the family. Feeling like I should return the literary favor, I decided to consider writing about some of her world as an animal rights activist and think about how that pertains to my area of HIV mental health as a psychotherapist living with HIV. Finding a connection between those two fields isn’t apparent at first glance, but with further study, some important considerations emerge.

Owning a pet, or the currently preferred term of “becoming an animal guardian”, has been shown in a number of studies to have a beneficial effect on health. Petting a cat has been known to lower blood pressure, and playing with an animal has been known to raise vital signs and lessen symptoms of depression. Many nursing homes have “visiting pet” days that lift the spirits of otherwise bored and sedentary elderly residents. Owning a pet also represents “getting out of one’s self”, and giving to another being. It can take our minds off of our troubles as consumers of help, and give help – even just the comfort of gentle petting – to some of our non-human friends. This kind of distraction can be a relief, a respite from the many stressors people living with HIV face daily medically, psychologically, and socially.

Animals and HIV have mixed before, certainly. HIV is believed to have mutated from SIV (Simian Immunodeficiency Virus), but HIV when given to chimps doesn’t cause AIDS. And, chimps that have been given HIV for experiments must spend their lives cruelly in confinement because of the risk of giving HIV back to humans. The controversy over the use of animals in research has raged for decades, and there are no easy answers. Research by animal rights advocates shows that much of what goes on in animal research today is repetitious, cruel, and unnecessary – things like psychological experiments in which baby monkeys are taken from their mothers and kept isolated to produce psychotic behavior, as if we didn’t know already that nurturing is essential for normal development. Much like the field of HIV, many misconceptions and ignorant assumptions abound about animals in research, and like HIV, only people who have done considerable reading, study or direct experience can explain to the average person how things really are. It is interesting how the ignorance that leads to the devaluing and dismissal of animals in society is awfully similar to the prejudice and mean-spiritedness that dismisses and stigmatizes people with HIV.

While the responsibility of caretaking for a pet for someone living with HIV may be an additional stress (such as cleaning the cat’s litter box, walking the dog, feeding, grooming, playing, annual shots, etc.), it can also represent taking responsibility and staying productive by maintaining a commitment to an important set of chores. Many people in 12-step programs for recovery from drug or alcohol addiction will deliberately become involved in activities that require a certain amount of structure, commitment, and work as part of their program, to prove to themselves that they can handle responsibility and keep commitments outside of their own little world. While the responsibilities of caretaking should not be taken lightly, the rewards of pet guardianship are numerous. In a world where HIV is all too stigmatized, pets are a deep source of unconditional love.

While the sad fact is that many pets who are not spayed or neutered breed many unwanted pets that end up euthanized (a nice word for “killed”) in public animal control facilities, people who adopt pets make a small difference by giving a life of support and comfort to at least one animal friend. In the laws of cause and effect, or even “karma”, giving to one can have a positive effect on many; we all do what we can to help in a very big world. The feeling of “needing to be needed” by an animal can improve self-esteem and make us feel capable and effective when at times our bodies don’t “feel” capable. The wonderful thing about relationships with companion animals is the great paradox that the more we give, the more we receive.

Even if pet guardianship is impractical for you due to severe health concerns, a heavy schedule, rules where you live, or other practicalities, opportunities to give and receive from the animal kingdom exist. Perhaps doing part-time work as a daytime dog-walker for a busy executive is a possibility. Or perhaps having a “pet friendly” home with equipment ready for occasional baby-sitting when a friend goes out of town. If allergies are a problem, but you still want to make a contribution, volunteering for a local animal welfare organization (such as PAWS – Pets Are Wonderful Support, in Los Angeles, or PALS – Pets Are Loving Support, in Atlanta) using skills you have at their office (typing, writing, accounting, public testimony, etc.) would be a non-contact way of doing your part. As Shakespeare’s Juliet said, “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep; the more I give to thee, the more I have; for both are infinite….”

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