Beyond Your Years with Luis Martinez

The Companionship of Pets

Our youngest son called us on a cold Saturday in January – “There’s a cute dog on craigslist in Buffalo. You better grab it before it’s gone.”  We emailed the lady owner, dropped what we were doing for that day and drove to her house to meet Louie, a 20 pound mutt about 7 months old.  The young family told us they couldn’t afford to keep Louie because they already had another large dog, a cat – and three children.  We gave the lady her asking price in cash, put Louie in the car and drove back to Rochester. No papers, no veterinary records; we were taking a chance. On the way home, we renamed him Aspen (to avoid confusion with my name). Since then, Aspen has gained a couple of pounds, he loves to cuddle and play with us and runs all over the yard chasing chipmunks. But his favorite activity is going for walks. He pulls and yanks at his leash, exploring all nooks and crannies, getting his exercise as he tows us along for walks ranging from two to four miles.

Aspen (formerly known as Louie)

To some degree, Aspen has changed our life.  We think about his food and his care, we updated all his veterinary needs and changed our daily routine to accommodate his care. Aspen is still a puppy with a huge heart, always wanting to be cuddled and scratched and played with. And the return on our investment is a lot of smiles.

There are many benefits to pet ownership, whether it’s a cat, a parrot, or even tropical fish. Here’s a report from the National Institutes of Health, which while rather old (1987) points to many benefits: “the presence of animals in institutional settings is associated with the tendency of older persons to smile and talk more, reach out toward people and objects, exhibit more alertness and attention, and experience more symptoms of well-being and less depression. Pet programs have proven superior in producing psychosocial benefits in comparison to some other alternative therapies (e.g., arts and crafts programs, friendly visitor programs, and conventional psychotherapy).

These benefits are also abundant for those who are wheelchair bound. Quoting the NIH study again, “Companion dogs provide wheelchair patients with a source of social stimulation that is typically more constant and reliable than most human companions, including spouses, siblings, or therapists. The presence of a companion dog serves to increase the quantity and quality of attention directed toward the handicapped persons by both familiar individuals and strangers. This “magnet” effect of companion dogs can be of significant benefit to the handicapped individuals.”

Another NIH report emphasizes the health benefits of pet ownership and companionship: “One NIH-funded investigation looked at more than 2,000 adults and found that dog owners who regularly walked their dogs were more physically active and less likely to be obese than those who didn’t own or walk a dog. Another study supported by NIH followed more than 2,500 older adults, ages 71-82, for 3 years. Those who regularly walked their dogs walked faster and for longer time periods each week than others who didn’t walk regularly. Older dog walkers also had greater mobility inside their homes than others in the study.” 

In addition, the Centers for Disease Control suggest that: “Pets can decrease your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels and feelings of loneliness. Pets can increase your opportunities for exercise and outdoor activities and opportunities for socialization.” 

What I like the most out of these studies is the concept of the ‘magnet effect’, the fact that pet companionship draws  others towards you, engaging you in conversation that would otherwise might seem awkward but it’s permissible and appropriate when the ‘third party’ is your shih tzu, your calico cat, or your angel fish. What are your thoughts about pets? Do you have a pet? Have you had one in the past?  What are your stories about your pets and how they shaped your own attitudes and behavior? 

And as I compose this I feel Aspen’s cold nose on my elbow. I am duly reminded – it’s time for his walk!

Luis Martinez is a guest blogger for St. John’s. He is an active senior that likes to observe and write about how people work at their careers, guide their businesses, strengthen their families, stay physically fit and mentally sharp, and race their sports cars. Luis habla español. Follow Luis on Twitter @BeyondYourYears, or email

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