Dogs and cats help patients with chronic illnesses, according to research. A new study from the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing at Case Western Reserve University concludes that having dogs and cats help women who live with HIV/AIDS manage their chronic illness.
“We think this finding about pets can apply to women managing other chronic illnesses,” said Allison R. Webel, instructor of nursing and lead author of the article, “The Relationship Between Social Roles and Self-Management Behavior in Women Living with HIV/AIDS.”
Webel published her research in the online journal Women’s Health Issues. She also discusses her research in a YouTube video: “Furry Friends with Benefits: Staying Healthy with Pets.”
Webel set out to better understand how women manage their HIV/AIDS and stay on track to take their medications, follow doctors’ orders and live healthy lifestyles. She conducted 12 focus groups with 48 women to find out what they did to stay healthy. The women had an average age of 42, about 90% had children, and more than half were single.
During the focus groups, six predominant social roles emerged that helped and hindered these women in managing their illness: dog or cat owner, mother/grandmother, faith believer, advocate, stigmatized patient and employee. All roles had a positive impact except stigmatized patient, which prevented women from revealing their illness and seeking out appropriate supports.
“Much information is available about the impact of work and family roles, but little is known about other social roles that women assume,” Webel said.
Being a dog or cat owner was an important surprise, added Webel, who collaborated with co-author Patricia Higgins, a professor of nursing at Case Western Reserve University.
“[Pets] gave these women a sense of support and pleasure,” Webel said.
When discussing the effect their dogs and cats have on their lives, the women weighed in. “She’s going to be right there when I’m hurting,” a cat owner said. Another said: “Dogs know when you’re in a bad mood … she knows that I’m sick, and everywhere I go, she goes. She wants to protect me.”
The human and animal bond in healing and therapy is being recognized, Webel said, as more animals are visiting nursing homes to connect to people with dementia or hospitals to visit children with long hospital stays.
Being a dog or cat owner is just one social aspect of these women’s lives. “We found the social context in which this self-management happens is important,” Webel said.
Another strong role to emerge was advocate. Participants wanted to give back and help stop others from engaging in activities that might make them sick, the researchers report.
While roles as mothers and workers are well documented, “less-defined social roles also have a positive impact on self-management of their chronic illness,” Webel said.