Pet Ownership For People With HIV/AIDS

Published: Jun 15, 2009 6:55 pm
Pet Ownership For People With HIV/AIDS

One of the most common difficulties people with HIV/AIDS encounter is deciding whether to have or keep a pet. Though individuals with healthy immune systems do not usually consider caring for animals risky, HIV/AIDS patients have a higher chance of picking up life-threatening illnesses from bites, scratches, and cleaning responsibilities.

Illnesses from pets can result in a variety of symptoms, including severe diarrhea, brain infections, and skin lesions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Caring for a pet can be a gratifying experience for individuals with HIV/AIDS if they understand the risks and take necessary precautions. Despite the virus’s prevalence in humans, HIV cannot be transmitted from an animal to a human. Similarly, the virus cannot be transmitted from an HIV-positive individual to his or her pet. Experts say individuals with HIV should assess which pets would best suit their personality and lifestyle, and above all — choose a pet that can be cared for safely.

“The risks are always related to pet animal biology or behavior,” said Steven Dumpert, risk communicator for Georgia’s Northeast Health District. “For example, an animal may require a warm, moist enclosure, which could become a perfect place for bacteria to grow. Litter boxes can be a concern, as can a behavioral predisposition of an animal to bite or scratch when it plays.”

“The best animals [for HIV-positive pet owners] may be those trained to defecate outdoors and those that are incapable or can be trained not to bite and scratch,” he said.

Because household pets like cats, dogs, birds, reptiles, fish, and rodents can carry infections that may be harmful to people with altered immune systems, HIV/AIDS patients should take the following precautions while handling or caring for animals:

  • Always wash hands with soap and water after handling an animal or cleaning an animal’s area or toys. This is especially important before eating, preparing food, smoking, or attending to wounds.
  • Make sure the pet is healthy and that it does not eat raw meats, garbage, or other animals’ stool, or droppings. HIV-positive pet owners should make sure their pets have up-to-date immunizations, attend regular veterinary check-ups, and that their pets are bathed regularly and receive suggested worm and insect medications. Maintaining the health of a pet decreases the chances of the animal passing bacteria, viruses, or other parasites that can cause opportunistic infections, or infections that do not usually develop in individuals with healthy immune systems, to HIV-positive individuals.
  • Be cautious of animals with diarrhea, which is often a sign of sickness. Seek veterinary attention if the animal’s condition persists more than a few days.
  • Avoid contact or bringing home an animal younger than 6 months old. Most young animals from pet stores, animal shelters, or breeders can carry bacteria and infections that are harmful to individuals with or without healthy immune systems.
  • Avoid contact with stray animals or any animal with an unknown background because the chances of being bitten or scratched are higher.
  • Do not touch any animal’s stool. For example, if caring for a cat, ask someone else to change the litter box. The protozoan (microorganism) Toxoplasma gondii is sometimes found in cat feces and that of other animals. Dumpert suggests individuals with HIV wear gloves when cleaning a litter box or fecal accidents in the house. Washing ones hands after handling the animal or its habitat is important as well, he said. Individuals with HIV/AIDS and pregnant women need to avoid contact with litter boxes if possible. Toxoplasmosis, or an illness that causes complications in the brain and nervous system, can be life-threatening in people with compromised immune systems.
  • Dumpert said people with HIV should also be concerned about cryptosporidiosis, a condition caused by a microscopic parasite (germ) found in mammal feces, and Mycobacterium Avium Complex (MAC) — a disease with tuberculosis-like symptoms. Cryptosporidiosis can be prevented by being careful around animal feces and cleaning supplies, but preventing MAC may require medication in addition to being cautious around pets.
  • Keep pets’ nails clipped to prevent scratches.
  • Never let a pet lick wounds or open surfaces on the body.
  • Avoid contact with exotic pets, particularly animals taken straight from their natural habitat.
  • If bitten or scratched by any animal, wash the area with soap and water and seek medical attention if a fever develops or the area begins to swell. HIV-positive cat owners need to cautious of cat-scratch disease which is caused by a bacteria common in most cats. Infection results in swelling of the lymph nodes, fever, and fatigue in humans. The disease does not affect cats, but they may carry the bacteria for months at a time. In HIV/AIDS patients, the disease can lead to serious complications.

Dumpert added that owning a pet means a “creature without understanding or consideration for the HIV condition is charging through the home,” and that extra steps to protect the HIV individual must be taken. Restricting an animal to being indoor only might be helpful, or getting a friend who doesn’t have HIV to help care for the pet can make pet ownership safer, he said.

Regardless of the risks, many people living with HIV choose to keep pets because they are fun to care for and have many psychological advantages. Pets can not only provide entertainment and companionship, they can comfort people — both in sickness and in health.

“For those suffering from a disease that often carries social discrimination or misunderstanding, pets can act as a source of comfort,” Dumpert said. “The positive psychological states that pets contribute are invaluable to the total health of a person living with HIV.”

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