Building on the successes of pet therapy programs like the one established by Hunt, Donna Dishman, executive director of PAWS in Houston, says her agency now works to take dogs or cats into hospitals for brief sojourns with their owners. The program, begun in 2002 at Houston’s Methodist Hospital, has grown so popular that PAWS has facilitated more than 600 patient-pet visits and expanded the service to include other local hospitals.

“We have seen companion animals provide miracles that medicine can’t provide,” Dishman says enthusiastically. “For example, there was a world-renowned lecturer who had been in the [intensive care unit] for three months after a massive heart attack and stroke. We took his dog in and had him lie at the end of the bed. His wife asked him who that was, and he said, 'Buddy.' It was his first word in three months!”

While not all bonds between animals and humans produce such dramatic clinical results, the clear benefits of pet ownership have led supporters to create PAWS groups in 28 cities to help keep HIV-positive people -- and in some cases other groups, like seniors and cancer patients -- together with their pets for as long as possible.

“Animals are not just nice, warm, and fuzzy. For many of our clients, they’re the only things that are keeping them going,” says John Lipp, president of PAWS in San Francisco, which has helped launch many other similar organizations over the past 23 years. “I can’t tell you how many times clients have said to me, 'That dog saved my life.' And I know they mean that.”

Linda Williams of Albany, N.Y., is one such PAWS client who insists she wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for her dog. Diagnosed with HIV in 1993, Williams has been through several health crises, some of which have required hospitalization. And through it all, she says, her biggest source of support and encouragement has been her adopted shih tzu and Lhasa apso mix dog, Jasper.

“The first time I was in the hospital, all I could think about was my dog and how I needed to get better so that I could go home to him,” Williams says, getting choked up as she speaks. “I live alone. I don’t have any other family here. He’s my family, and I’ve given my heart to him.”

Louganis also considers his four dogs (Jack Russell terriers Nipper and Dobby, border collie Godric “Griffy” Griffindor, and Hungarian Pumi Hedwig) to be family. He’s penned the book For the Life of Your Dog: A Complete Guide to Having a Dog in Your Life From Adoption and Birth Through Sickness and Health, and he and partner Daniel have made a second career out of training and showing dogs at competitions around the country. And while he’s in great health today, Louganis says he continues to be inspired by and to learn from his pets.

“For me,” Louganis says, “the most important thing I’ve learned from my dogs is to be quick to forgive, which is not always easy. And I’ve learned not to judge. Just think of how nonjudgmental your pets are: You can spill your guts to them, share your frustrations, share everything, and there’s no judgment at all, just love. We have so much we can learn from our animals.”

Tags: Health