During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people turned to their animal companions to help them feel less lonely and isolated. Researchers at the University of California, Davis, wanted to learn what role animals played in helping those who had already survived the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and were now dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic as well.

Professor Lynette Hart with the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine led a study that examined whether long-term HIV/AIDS survivors fared better during the AIDS or COVID pandemic, and if companion animals helped reduce their feelings of isolation, sadness and stigma. The survey involved mostly older males who developed HIV before 1996. “The underlying question in our minds has always been: what role do pets play for people who are so isolated and suffering so much stigma?” Hart says.

Dog Parents Felt Less Alone

Published in the journal Animals, the study found that HIV/AIDS survivors felt far more grief, isolation and stigma during the AIDS pandemic than during COVID. It also found that older men, despite experiencing adversity during the AIDS pandemic, were able to cope better during COVID — especially if they had a dog.

“I don’t think dogs are magically making them better, but dogs are making a difference,” says Hart. “Older HIV/AIDS survivors may also have more coping strategies, and dogs are part of that. They take their dogs on walks and meet people in their neighborhood and remain more socially connected.”

Hart adds that cat parents felt more alone, isolated and unsupported, even though they were universal in saying that their cats comforted them. She goes on to say that supportive pet care service organizations that keep people with special needs and their companion animals together could focus particularly on providing cat parents with greater support.

Many HIV/AIDS Survivors Lack Family Support

Very few of the HIV/AIDS survivors who responded to the survey received family support during either pandemic. “I think it’s important to know that long-term survivors of AIDS are resilient, and a lot of them would say that animals were a big part of that,” says study co-author Ken Gorczyca, founding veterinarian for Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS). “Having an animal companion gave many a sense of purpose in life, especially in the 1980s and ’90s when AIDS was so bad and there was virtually no support from government, or many times from your family.”

AUTHOR PROFILE

Animal Wellness is North America's top natural health and lifestyle magazine for dogs and cats, with a readership of over one million every year. AW features articles by some of the most renowned experts in the pet industry, with topics ranging from diet and health related issues, to articles on training, fitness and emotional well being.