A New Leash on Life

That doggie in the window may be worth more than you ever imagined. Recent studies have shown that dogs, cats, turtles and fish may really be everyone's best friend, especially people with HIV/AIDS.

By Kimberly Olson

San Francisco resident Pali Doucher is living proof that life's challenges can be overcome. Homeless at the age of 11, Pali spent years living on the streets.

While other kids were joining Little League and entering science fairs, Pali was introduced to hard drugs. As she moved into adulthood, she found herself in an abusive relationship. Then, in 1993, Pali was diagnosed with HIV.

Despite the many hurdles, Pali says that today she's feeling better— and healthier — than ever before. But if you ask her where she gets her strength, she will quickly explain that a very special someone has helped guide her through the rough times. His name is Leadbelly and he is a playful black and tan coonhound.

"It's hard to get a gauge on what's important in your life, especially if you don't know how much life you have left," Pali says. "But I know that every morning I'm going to get up and kiss my dog."

Out of the doghouse

Pali and Leadbelly met at the SPCA 10 years ago. Though she wasn't thinking of adopting a pet, Pali liked to visit the animals. "I'd just go in and say 'hi' to them," she says.

But on one visit, Pali walked into the SPCA and heard a loud banging. It was Leadbelly, and he was making such a racket that he was unwittingly driving away potential adopters. Pali was charmed by the little rebel's antics. "I fell in love with him from the first time I saw him," she remembers. "There was no question that I would adopt him."

Little did Pali know how dramatically that decision would change her life. Although she had been homeless for almost as long as she could remember, she knew she had a responsibility to provide Leadbelly with a proper home.

"I felt so protective of him," she says. "A friend took care of him while I went through a drug program. He helped me get off the streets."

Now living with AIDS, Pali says having Leadbelly around has improved the quality of her life and ultimately her health. In fact, Pali believes so strongly in the healing power of the human-animal bond that she volunteers at Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS).

Based in San Francisco, PAWS helps low-income people with HIV and AIDS to feed, exercise and obtain medical care for their pets.

Walk two schnauzers and call me in the morning

Erin Farrell, the executive director of PAWS, says that pets are good medicine. "I've had people tell me that they wouldn't be alive if it wasn't for their animals," she says. "They give them a reason to live."

Pali agrees that an animal companion can give people the motivation they need to get through the difficult times. "When you have AIDS, so many things are important," she says. "Getting food, getting medicine, getting your bills paid. But my dog is the most important thing to me."

And now, medical research seems to support what many pet owners have believed all along. Marie Suthers-McCabe, D.V.M., an associate professor at Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine and a specialist in human-companion animal interaction, says pets offer tremendous physiological, psychological and social benefits.

"We see increased survival after myocardial infarction among people who have pets," Dr. Suthers-McCabe says. "We also see a decreased recurrence of heart attack among pets owners."

Research indicates that just petting a dog can decrease systolic blood pressure and reduce stress. Another recent study showed that when fish tanks were put in dental surgeons' waiting rooms, patients' anxiety levels decreased.

Pets also provide increased feelings of comfort, happiness, security and self-worth. Those things contribute to a general sense of well being, so people with pets tend to experience less depression.

"Human beings have a need to be important to someone and a need to feel cared for," Dr. Suthers-McCabe explains. "Having that emotional support is a good indicator for recovery after a medical event."

Pali couldn't agree more. She says Leadbelly, who has been with her since he was a puppy, greatly enhances her emotional well-being. "Most of my life I lived on the streets and did not have a normal life at all," Pali says. " Leadbelly taught me how to have a long-term relationship."

Dr. Suthers-McCabe says the psychological benefits that people like Pali experience can be profound. "Pets can greatly ease loneliness, which is often important for AIDS patients," she says. "Humans who don't know about HIV and AIDS may be afraid of it. Some people don't know what to say and how to react, so a person with HIV may experience some rejection. But pets give you continual non-judgmental acceptance and unconditional love."

Not only do animals offer companionship, but they also tend to help their owners get out and connect with others. When you take Fido out to the park for a run, it's almost inevitable that another pooch will run up to greet him, often with a human attached at the other end of the leash.

Pali says pet ownership is a shared experience that offers an immediate bond. Her work as a PAWS volunteer has helped her make many new friends. "It goes beyond who's homeless and who's not. People are getting food for their animals at the center, but they're also socializing."

Today, Pali and Leadbelly share an apartment with a hound dog named Hank, a pit bull mix named Muddy Waters, and a talking parrot named Chester.

"No matter how crazy my day is, I make sure I get home and feed my dogs and spend time with them," Pali says. "In taking such good care of my dogs, I end up taking care of myself. And I'm healthier than I've ever been."

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