HIV/AIDS and Pet Ownership

Persistent myths regarding immunosuppression and safe pet ownership

Presented in Canton, OH, on August 15, 2003

by

Caroline B. Schaffer, DVM

College of Veterinary Medicine, Nursing and Allied Health

Tuskegee Universit

Presentation Overview: Interventions that promote the physical and mental health benefits of pet companionship must be tempered with facts--both pro and con. Despite comprehensive educational efforts by HIV/AIDS-support groups, many well-meaning friends, physicians, and other health care providers still insist that people with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) get rid of their pets. Others, including cancer patients, diabetics, transplant recipients, infants, pregnant women, the elderly, and people on immunosuppressive medications, encounter similar advice. By contrast, some listen to only part of the messages regarding safe pet interactions and fail to follow guidelines to prevent the transfer of zoonotic diseases from animals to immunosuppressed people.

Educational programs such as the one at the Center for the Study of Human-Animal Interdependent Relationships at Tuskegee University's School of Veterinary Medicine continue to encounter misinformation that threatens the social lives of animals and people. Examples of myths that persist are:

  1. MYTH: Animals living with people infected with HIV carry the virus to other people. FACT: No scientific evidence suggests that animals other than non-human primates can get AIDS or give AIDS to people.
  2. MYTH: The medical community over-reacted--animals do not transmit diseases to people. FACT: Over 200 diseases are said to be zoonotic, i.e. shared by people and animals.
  3. MYTH: Feline AIDS can infect people. FACT: Cats do not get or give AIDS. The Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) is not the same as HIV and cannot infect people. This unfortunate misnomer has cost many cats their homes and their lives.
  4. MYTH: Animal caretakers should be fired if they are infected with HIV. FACT: The Americans with Disability Act of 1990 prohibits discrimination in the work place due to HIV/AIDS.
  5. MYTH: Pregnant women will get toxoplasmosis from their cats. FACT: Transmission is highly preventable. Cats may shed the toxoplasma organism in their feces two weeks during their entire life. Only if their egg-laden feces sits 24-48 hours before being ingested can toxoplasmosis infect people.

These and other important points about zoonotic diseases, safe pet ownership, health care teams, laws against discrimination, and universal precautions were presented in this lecture to encourage mutually beneficial relationship between animals and people. By examining persistent beliefs and fears, advocates of human-animal interactions were better able to safeguard the welfare of animals and the people with whom they live.