This week: should I get a dog for company? Rosie, widowed suddenly a year ago, lives in London with her cat. Her friends say she should get a dog for company, even though she works all day. But is it fair to keep a dog in town?
It's kind of Rosie to be concerned about a dog but there are two other characters in this scenario who need considering as well. They are what make up her household at the moment - herself and her cat. Still tormented by grief and loneliness, is this the right moment for Rosie to take on such a major responsibility? Rosie has a fantasy that this dog would give her company - but what if it didn't have the magical effect she expected? Most likely she would continue to feel lonely and just cry with guilt about inflicting her loneliness on the dog as well. Or what if her social life picked up? Would she leave it while she danced the night away? Wouldn't she feel guilty? Wouldn't there be moments when she resented this poor creature - when she wanted suddenly to go away for a weekend to Paris and all the kennels were full? And the walks - if the days are sunny and warm like they are at the moment, fine. But does she really want to have to get up every single morning to take her dog out come rain come shine, past traffic jams belching fumes out into the road?

Does she realise, too, how preoccupying dogs are? I only had to look after a dog for a week once and I was unable to work, think or do anything without considering the animal. When I wasn't giving it a bath and drying and combing its beautiful hair, I was cooking it special food, and when I wasn't taking it for long, lazy walks, I was worrying whether it was getting a good night's sleep. It was like having a baby all over again. As for fitting another man into this scenario at some future date - no way.

As for the cat, any cat that I know, and I know quite a few, would be absolutely hopping mad at the introduction of a dog into its life. A minuscule dog came to lunch the other day and my cat stayed on the stairs, his fur so puffed up with indignation, rage and panic that he took a couple of days to get back to his slim self. A dog might mean that her cat simply packs his bags and leaves. Another bereavement. Could she bear it?

And now we come to the poor animal itself. Obviously there are dogs which live in London and are quite happy being on their own during the day, but I bet a lot are really miserable and chew up the furniture when their masters are gone. Dogs are pack animals, and like to be in groups or at least pairs, and a dog on its own must feel as if it's in solitary confinement, day after day after day.

The only situation in which Rosie could get a dog and still live with her conscience is to rescue an extremely old one under sentence of death which is used to being left on its own for long stretches; an old dog which can't walk more than once round the block, if that, and is coming to the end of its natural life. Yes, you've spotted the catch - it brings yet another bereavement on the horizon.

Rosie's loneliness is a kind of depression and there probably isn't much she can do to alleviate it except wait for the moment that will come, eventually, when she just feels less lonely inside. At the moment I think the only difference a dog would make would be negative - guilt for Rosie, loneliness for the dog and hysteria for the catn

What readers say

I bought a puppy and lost my freedom

When I took early retirement a couple of years ago, it seemed the perfect time to get a puppy for company, since my husband was still working. We decided on a small, short-haired animal from a reputable breeder. The problems started from the first night, and continued for four months until I finally managed to find a good home for her. During this period I spent nearly all of my time extremely depressed and I lost nearly two stone in weight. Why? Because, although the dog was fine, right from the beginning I felt trapped, as if my life was over. I realised that all the freedoms I had taken for granted, like sleeping late at weekends, or staying overnight with friends, were gone. My life revolved around going for walks, going to puppy training classes, preparing food, and so on. When I finally re-homed the puppy, I was filled with terrible feelings of grief at losing her, and humiliation at having failed, but also with a terrific sense of freedom.

I do occasionally look after friends' dogs for a day, but, pleasant as it is, I'm glad to hand them back and get on with my life.

Name withheld

Why not keep pet rats instead?

Dogs are social animals which enjoy the company of other dogs and humans, so it is certainly not fair to keep one alone for a large part of the day. But I choose rats as alternative companion animals, and would never be without them now.

Pet rats bond to people in much the same way that dogs do. Well-socialised rats adore human company, and they score just as well as dogs in intelligence tests. But they are much easier to care for.

Pet rats are domesticated, and do not carry any of the diseases borne by wild rats. Their needs are simple: a large cage, lots of human love, and other rats to play with. They should be kept in single-sex pairs - since single rats get bored and lonely no matter how much time you spend with them.

Angela Horn, National Fancy Rat Society,

26 King's Orchard, Eltham, London SE9 5TJ

Consider a Siamese cat

I also went through a lonely period when my husband and I separated. At 39 I wished that I had children and so I thought looking after a dog might fill the gap. However, I too felt that I wouldn't be happy keeping a dog in town. A friend mentioned to me that a Siamese cat might be the answer. She told me that Siamese cats behave similarly to dogs in that they are intelligent, extremely loyal to their owners and growl to alert you if someone unknown comes to the house. Unlike dogs they do not need huge amounts of space nor taking out for walks.

Tomsky has become a truly loyal friend and is wonderful company. He is fully house-trained and has free run of our small garden but he is always right by me. Ironically, within two years of him coming to live with me, I remarried and now have a five-month-old baby!

Barbarina Wild, Surrey

An older dog may be used to being alone

Firstly, when considering buying a dog, people immediately tend to think about puppies, which need constant care and attention. It is fair to say that anybody who is at work all day would find it difficult to care for a young puppy. But do not despair. The National Canine Defence League has a network of 15 rescue centres nationwide, and we always have more than 2,000 dogs in our care which all deserve a second chance at happiness.

When re-homing a dog, we do everything to ensure they are placed in a suitable environment. Some of the older dogs in our care are used to being left alone during the day. They are quite happy to relax and sleep most of the day away. Alternatively, if space allows, you could always have two dogs so that they can keep each other company!

Whatever the decision, owning a dog is a rewarding experience and given time everybody can find the right dog. I am sure that with the right advice Rosie could also find a loving companion.

Clarissa Baldwin, NCDL secretary and chief executive, 17 Wakley Street, London EC1V 7LT

Next week's problem: how can we console our daughter?

Dear Virginia,

We have always tried to make life as secure as possible for our children, and shielded them from the many difficulties we've had - for instance my husband became addicted to drugs for a short period, and I had an affair while this was going on, though the children never knew. However, recently, our 13-year-old daughter went to visit a friend and became incredibly upset when she found out that my husband had been married before. We had never told the children about his first marriage because it only lasted a couple of years - and because it never seemed important. But my daughter seems inconsolable about this discovery. What should we do?

Yours sincerely, Fran

Comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a bouquet from Interflora. Send personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL (fax 0171-293 2182) by Tuesday morning. If you have any dilemmas of your own you would like to share, let me know.