I am sitting at a friend's apartment, talking about work, black skirts and whether we're going to order Chinese. One of her neighbors knocks on the door, to ask if Vinnie can come out to play.

Vinnie is Marilyn's cat.Another friend, Dana, tells me she is looking for a new car.

The chief qualification is that it be big enough to hold her two mutts. The dogs, plus people. And next month, she's fencing her yard to create a dog run.

Then there's Amy. Twenty-eight and newly single, she drives a work car, a Saab, and another car, a Jeep Cherokee. The Jeep functions as a camping car, a weekend car, a winter car. But she calls it her "dog car," for Frannie, her golden Labrador.

My brothers and sisters tell cute stories about their children, trading them like baseball cards. Lately, among my single friends, I find I'm listening to more and more cute stories. About their pets.

"If you were eavesdropping on the conversations that Richard and I have, you would think that we were talking about children," Marilyn says. "It doesn't worry me, but I don't talk too loudly."

"When we go out, we all talk about what our dogs have done, instead of what our kids have done," Scot says.

Elbert got a kitten about a month ago. He named her Eleanor Roosevelt. And he's found that cat ownership has changed his life in subtle ways, ways that owning hermit crabs and goldfish never did.

He comes home after work now, instead of eating out every night. "I am her Significant Other. I feel a moral obligation. I have to take time to play with her, because I've put her in the situation where I'm the only other animal she comes in contact with." He checks out pet toys everytime he goes to the store. He hasn't bought the leather chair he wants, thanks to the thought of Eleanor's claws. The black-and-orange calico already has murdered three of his plants.

Scot admits he's become more responsible since he got Barley. "I run now, five miles every day, because of the dog. It's because every day when I get home she looks at me like `Hey, bub.' "

That's why Dana got the dogs in the first place, for the responsibility of it all. "I was worried I'd be too set in my ways. I got them just so I'd have a little uncontrolled hassle in my life, to keep me flexible."

Just like the baby boomers who first discovered the concept of children when they had their own, my friends have discovered animals. They don't look for baby sitters when we go on vacations, just pet watchers. Their pet stories have become part of our shtick, the amusing stories we all tell to each other at parties.

Health experts have talked up this human-pet bond for a long time. You've heard the stories of animals who have produced magic in nursing homes, helped critically injured patients heal, autistic children communicate. And what elementary school classroom is complete without an elementary-size zoo, the prerequisite hamster, gerbil or goldfish?

Dale Lund, University of Utah professor and director of the Gerontology Center, studied the question of whether pets helped ease grief in new widows and widowers. Surprisingly, his study of 192 Salt Lake County residents showed pet ownership didn't seem to have a significant impact during the first year after a loss. That was particularly true if the pet had been owned jointly by both spouses.

Lund guesses that's because of a reminder factor, or that people are so busy making arrangements after the death of a spouse they don't have time to share a lot of quality time with a pet. If he learned anything from the study, it's that pets shouldn't be perceived as a substitute for human relationships.

But an interesting sidelight of the research occurred when Lund presented the paper at a meeting. The paper on pets sparked more interest from journalists than any study on aging he has ever reported.

"Maybe it's like there's a large, silent majority of people out there that own pets," Lund says. "Maybe the people that own pets feel so close to their animals they are reluctant to let other humans know how close the bond is."

It makes sense, really. In a society where more people live alone, wrapped in increasingly isolated lives, I'm noting all the companionship that pet ownership seems to deliver to my friends.

First, of course, there's the bond with your animal, the dog that jumps up to lick you enthusiastically when you come home, the cat that climbs up on your lap needing attention. Pets are like roommates, but they don't talk back or grow mold in the bottom of the fridge. "There's always someone to talk to," Amy says.

Then there's the human bonding that happens quite naturally. Scot and his friends plan bring-your-own-dog parties. They arrange mountain biking or skiing excursions, a pack of friendly dogs with humans in tow. Lund remembers a friend who bought a dog specifically to meet women while strolling at Sugarhouse Park.

When we walk Dana's dogs around the neighborhood or on trails at the Grand Canyon, strangers comment on them. It's light chatter, as light as a tuft of breeze on a summer's day, but friendly, a bond between pet lovers. "One time," Dana says, "I have actually been wrapped up in leashes, knee-to-knee with a guy, just like in the movies."

To be fair, I know married people, with children and without, who are fused to their animals, who tell the same brand of pet lover's stories, who consider their pets part of the family. I like this thought: that companionship comes in a variety of packages, that a person doesn't need to be part of a matched set - husband-wife-two kids - in order to love a cat or dog or bird.

"I would rather be attached to my animals than things, like my VCR," Marilyn says. "I think it's a better sign that I come home and enjoy watching Vinnie and Kate, than come home and see `Murphy Brown.' They're more interesting than paintings."

She admits that she's a sucker for cats, but they are like children. It's a specific kind of love. You love your own best.

"The neighbor cat across the hall, Isabelle, is nice enough. But she has personality flaws. Mine don't."