Greg Louganis found he could do little more than lie on the couch in front of the TV. Although as an Olympic gold medalist he was both physically and mentally tenacious, the weeklong interleukin-2 treatments he was taking to boost his CD4-cell count routinely sidelined him with extreme fatigue and a battery of flu-like symptoms.

“It was brutal,” Louganis recalls of his time on the treatment about a decade ago. “I was exhausted. I couldn’t regulate my body temperature. I’d just lie there shaking uncontrollably. It was all I could do just to stay comfortable.”

So how did Louganis make it through these challenges and find the strength to continue with the grueling treatment month after daunting month?

“It was my dogs,” he states simply. “I had two Great Danes at the time -- Freeway and Ryan -- and they’d just snuggle up next to me, keep me warm, and keep me company. They really gave me the support I needed to get through those treatments. I couldn’t have done it without them.”

Louganis isn’t alone in his ability to draw strength and support from his companion animals. A growing body of scientific data has shown that living with pets conveys a host of measurable health benefits, including lowering blood pressure, cutting cholesterol and triglyceride levels, reducing cardiovascular stress, diminishing symptoms of depression, and lowering perceived pain, among others. The data are so compelling that the National Institutes of Health has held seminars and offers fact sheets on the health benefits of pet ownership.

But for HIVers, perhaps even more significant than the clinical benefits are the less tangible psychological and social blessings that come from the bond between humans and their animal companions, says veterinarian Douglas Cohn, who is director of the animal resources center at Albany Medical Center in New York.

“Many HIV-positive people are ostracized from their families, and many feel very much turned away by the rest of the world,” he explains. “Companion animals provide unrelenting love and affection, no matter who you are. They don’t care if you’re infected or you’re not infected. And for people who are dealing with a serious illness, having that sort of constant in one’s life provides a mental stability they couldn’t necessarily otherwise count on.”

Perry Junjulas, executive director of Albany Damien Center, an organization that offers support to HIVers through its Pets Are Wonderful Support program, says companion animals provide another form of stability many people who are tackling HIV too often lack: a routine.

“Having pets forces you to get up out of bed every day to feed them, to take them for walks, to play with them,” he explains. “Studies have even shown that people bounce back from illnesses more quickly when they know they’ve got to get back to their pets and back to their routines of taking care of them.”

Those daily pet-care tasks also can help lessen isolation and loneliness, both troubling and health-damaging conditions far too many HIVers face, says Susan Hunt, MD, a palliative care specialist who founded a pet therapy program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

“There are whole communities of pet lovers out there that you can quickly become a part of just by getting out and walking your pets,” she says. “People will stop you on the street and ask about your dog; you can socialize with folks at a dog park. It’s really quite amazing the friendships you can develop with other people through your animals.”

Tags: Health