As I approached four years as a widow, the loneliness of a one-person household began to drag me down. Acquiring a four-legged companion, rather than a two-legged one, appealed to me.
And so, in February, I adopted a five-month-old puppy, a hypoallergenic Havanese small enough for me to pick up and carry, even into my ninth decade, when I travel to visit family and friends.
I am now making it work with Max II, little mischief that he is, and I am besotted. Heís smart ó smart enough to know when I really must work and cannot spend time throwing a ball for him. As I write this, heís asleep on the floor at my side, although during a phone interview two weeks ago, he managed to shred every piece of paper he could grab in my study.
Yes, heís a lot of work, at least at this age. But like a small child, Max makes me laugh many times a day. Thatís not unusual, apparently: In a study of 95 people who kept ďlaughter logs,Ē those who owned dogs laughed more often than cat owners and people who owned neither.
When I speak to Max, he looks at me lovingly and seems to understand what Iím saying. When I open his crate each morning, he greets me with unbounded enthusiasm. Likewise when I return from a walk or swim, a day at the office, or an evening at the theatre.
But perhaps the most interesting (and unpremeditated) benefit has been the scores of people Iíve met on the street, both with and without dogs, who stop to admire him and talk to me. Max has definitely increased my interpersonal contacts and enhanced my social life. People often thank me for letting them pet my dog. Max, in turn, showers them with affection.
Prompted by my son, a fellow dog lover, to explore the health benefits of pet ownership, I dug into the literature, focusing first on what pets can do for older adults, then branching out to people in all age brackets.
More American households have dogs than any other type of nonhuman companion. Studies of the health ramifications have strongly suggested that pets, particularly dogs, can foster cardiovascular health, resistance to stress, social connectivity and enhanced longevity.
The researcher Erika Friedmann, whose groundbreaking study in 1980 showed that, other factors being equal, people with pets were more likely to be alive a year after discharge from