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AIDS diagnosis and depression in the Multicenter AIDS cohort study: The ameliorating impact of pet o

J. M. Siegel,
University of California
F. J. Angulo R. Detels,
School of Medicine, Northwestern University
J. Wesch, & A. Mullen
Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, Baltimore

Published in 'Aids Care', 11 (2), 157-170, 1999

The purpose of this study was to investigate the influence of pet ownership on depression among a sample of gay and bisexual men who were taking part in the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study.  Data was collected from 1,872 men between April and September 1991 and consisted of blood tests, and questionnaires assessing depression, levels of social support, interaction with pets, and demographic variables.  According to the authors, this research paper was the first empirical investigation into the psychological benefits of pet ownership for HIV-infected individuals.

The findings indicated that pet ownership did not directly affect levels of depression and pet owners were just as likely to be depressed as non-pet owners, regardless of whether or not they felt attached to their pets.  Although the presence of HIV infection was also unrelated to depression, the results indicated that participant's with AIDS were considerably more likely to be depressed.  However this effect was significantly diminished among pet owners in general but particularly among those who felt emotionally attached to their pets.  The presence of AIDS was only associated with depression among those who did not own a pet or did not have an attachment to their pet.

Pet ownership was also most influential in reducing AIDS-associated depression among participants with limited confidant support.  The benefits of pet ownership were strongest for men who had few confidants but had a close attachment to their pets, for example, sleeping in the same room as their pets at night and touching them frequently. The authors suggest the reason for this is that pet companionship helps to reduce the isolation that can accompany AIDS and that pets fulfil crucial companionship needs that enhance psychological well-being.  Not only is AIDS often a stigmatizing condition, but many of these men have lost friends and companions to the disease, so the attachment and tactile comfort that a pet provides can reduce feelings of stress and loneliness.
The researchers also investigated whether or not different types of pet affected the relationship between pet ownership and depression, as it has been suggested previously that owning a dog has more beneficial effects for health status.  However, the results indicated only a weak trend in this direction and none of the analyses were statistically significant.  More importantly, it is the strength of affection the owner has for their pet that fulfils their companionship needs therefore stronger bonds result in more rewarding psychological benefits for the owner.

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