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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."
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."