Switch On Your HIV Smarts.

Dog ownership may protect against depression among people with HIV, study finds

, by Emily Land

A small study, published in JMIR Mental Health, documents a strong association between dog ownership and decreased risk for depression among people living with HIV. People in the study, mostly gay men living with HIV, who did not currently own a dog had three times higher odds of depression than people in the study who currently owned dogs. This relationship held true even when other factors related to depression—such as age, race, ethnicity, gender and resilience—were controlled for.

Although this was a cross-sectional study not intended to assess causality, the authors hypothesize that dog ownership may reduce risk of depression by bolstering social support. Dogs can increase opportunities for social engagement—not only between the dog and their owner, but between the owner and the neighborhood or community where they live.

“I remember when I adopted [my dog] Fred, he had no patience for me to sit alone in isolation in my apartment. He demanded to be walked and cared for and nurtured. That required me to take him outside and engage in the world around me in a way that I hadn’t,” said Robert Garofalo, MD, MPH, lead researcher of the study and founder of When Dogs Heal.

Robert Garofalo, MD, MPH, with his dog, Fred (Photo: Chris Bauer)

Robert Garofalo, MD, MPH, with his dog, Fred (Photo: Chris Bauer)

“As an HIV-positive man and a dog owner, these study results are not surprising to me,” said Gunner Friesen, senior cyclist representative for AIDS/LifeCycle. “[My dog] Castro’s presence in my life gives comfort as well as a sense of love and well-being. I especially like having him in the office during times of unease. Petting a dog in your lap is so much better than a stress ball! Castro has also helped me socialize and connect with co-workers and helped me break out of social anxiety.”

Garofalo explained that in addition to social support, dog ownership can help people establish daily routines that benefit mental and physical health (e.g., helping people living with HIV stay virally suppressed by setting a schedule that improves adherence to daily antiretroviral medications).

Previous research has linked dog ownership to physical and mental health benefits, including reduced stress hormone levels, improved heart health, lowered blood pressure, and decreased loneliness.

Person with dog

(Photo provided by Shanti Project and PAWS, by Kendra Luck)

“What makes the unconditional love from an animal so special is that it’s non-judgmental,” said Kaushik Roy, executive director of The Shanti Project and Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS). “For some people who have lost a lot of their friends, their networks, their chosen families, there can be a deep isolation helped immensely through the power of the human-animal bond.”

The current study included 252 adults living with HIV who completed an online survey. Participants completed questions assessing pet ownership (past and present), demographics, depression symptoms, and resiliency. The researchers assessed resiliency, the ability of an individual to sustain their well-being through individual effort and social/contextual influences, because they hypothesized that this could account for a person’s depression risk (even without the influence of pet ownership).

On average, people in the study had been living with HIV for about 17 years and were 48.7 years old at the time of the study. Most (86%) of people in the study were male, most (80%) were white, and most (83%) identified as gay. Nearly all (97.5%) had ever owned a pet, with 68% currently owning a dog.

Only two variables were significantly associated with depression: resiliency and dog ownership. When controlling for the influence of resiliency, people who did not currently own a dog had three times higher risk of depression than dog owners.

“I wasn’t surprised to find out that dog ownership was associated with a reduced risk of depression. I was a little surprised that we found the statistically significant association so easily with a relatively small sample. All that speaks to is the impact that dogs have on people,” said Garofalo.

Garofalo is planning future research that will test dog adoption as an intervention that improves the lives of people living with HIV.

“Although dog ownership might not be the right intervention for everybody living with HIV, I think this study shows that there are a significant number of people that might benefit. If dog adoption shows benefits, it’s an aspect of HIV care that could be potentially implemented in cities or places across the country,” he said.

Considering dog adoption?

Learn about PAWS, a project by The Shanti Project

PAWS logoThe Shanti Project’s PAWS (Pets Are Wonderful Support) program provides companion animals to San Francisco residents with a diagnosis of disabling HIV or AIDS, another disabling illness and/or people age 60 and older, who make a gross income of no greater than $1,850 per month. (For more information about PAWS, call 415-979-9550).

If you’re considering dog adoption, Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS) noted a few things to consider.

Suitability of a dog to environment, lifestyle and activity level

No matter who you are or where you live, the most important thing to consider is compatibility. A “happily ever after” is largely dependent on the right match.

For the relationship to be mutually beneficial it’s important to consider your overall lifestyle and what type of dog/pet would be well-matched with things like:

  • Your environment (Do you live in a small apartment, in a high traffic neighborhood, with children, in a quiet building, with other pets, near a neighborhood park, etc.?);
  • Your schedule (are you home a lot or out and about most of the day?);
  • Your level of physical activity and ability (are you looking for a walking companion or cuddle buddy?);
  • Your willingness/ability to teach basic commands and behaviors;
  • If you prefer to adopt a pet who already knows basic commands and behaviors;
  • Your ability to provide food; and,
  • Your ability to access veterinary care—through sickness, health and end-of-life.

These are just some examples of the things to think about when adopting a pet. Considering these details will help you determine what size, temperament and age of dog/pet would be most appropriate in your life.

  • A love connection is also important! Meet and greet a critter or two and see if you hit it off before making a commitment.
  • If your health status fluctuates, what kind of support do you have in place? Can and would the people in your support network extend their support to your animal companion (walking a dog, cleaning a cat litter box, pet sitting, etc.) if and when needed? If the answer is “no,” do you have the financial resources to pay for this type of support should you need it?
  • Although the financial costs associated with pet guardianship are an important factor to consider, a low or fixed income should not be the sole reason to forego an animal companion. Many cities have resources available to assist low-income pet guardians.
  • Finally, if you rent or lease your residence, please make sure, in advance, that you are allowed to have a pet(s). Avoid the heartbreak of making a love connection only to have it denied by your landlord/lease.

There are many wonderful institutions and rescue organizations in the Bay Area with many different types of dogs (and other pets) in need of a forever home. They are committed to finding the right home for the animals in their care.

PAWS is currently the only program in San Francisco to provide companion animals to San Francisco residents with a diagnosis of disabling HIV or AIDS, another disabling illness and/or people over age 60. The wait time for new clients to enroll in the program is about five years, but once people join the PAWS Waiting List, the organization is able to assist eligible individuals with limited services. PAWS can also provide information and referrals to the general public regarding other pet care resources in the Bay Area.


Muldoon, A.L. and colleagues. A Web-Based Study of Dog Ownership and Depression among People Living with HIV. JMIR Mental Health, November 2017.


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