By: Jane E Brody
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. He’s smart — smart enough to know when I really must work and cannot spend time throwing a ball for him. As I write this, he’s 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, he’s a lot of work, at least at this age. But like a small child, Max makes me laugh many times a day. That’s not unusual, apparently: In a study of 95 people who kept “laughter logs,” 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 I’m 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 I’ve 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 a coronary care unit, said studies also have linked pet ownership to lower blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides — even though owners drank more alcohol, ate more meat and weighed more than those without pets. Other studies have found that older people who walk dogs are more likely than those who walk with human companions to engage in regular exercise and be physically fit.
Controlled studies by Dr Friedmann, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Nursing, have also demonstrated a lower level of physiological arousal from stress-inducing situations when a friendly animal was present.
As a study published in 2007 in Society & Animals concluded, pets “ameliorate some determinants of mental health such as loneliness.” In a survey of 339 residents of Western Australia, the researchers found pet ownership to be associated “with social interactions, favour exchanges, civic engagement, perceptions of neighbourhood friendliness and sense of community.”
But before acquiring any pet, and especially a dog, Alan M Beck, who heads the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue, urges people to carefully consider the implications. “Look for an animal of an appropriate breed, size and temperament for your household,” he said. \
“Do you have the income, exercise ability and time the pet needs?” In an interview, Dr Beck suggested speaking to owners with the kind of pet you are considering. If possible, visit a household with one. Better still, he said, try pet-sitting for a few days or fostering an animal for a few weeks to appreciate more fully what pet ownership entails and to determine if you are up to the task.