If you own a pet, you’re well aware of all the ways they support and enrich your life. But what you might not know are the documented physical and mental health benefits of caring for an animal companion. From feeling less stress and making new friends to exercising more, owning a pet could be just what the doctor ordered.

Without question, animals are good for our hearts. Their love makes us feel deserving and exceptional and appreciated for exactly who we are – warts and all. Studies show that owning a pet can also help lower blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol, minimizing the risk of heart disease and other health conditions. And for people who’ve already had a heart attack, research suggests that dog owners fare better and live longer than survivors who live alone.

Additionally, spending quality time with animals can lead to decreased stress and anxiety, not to mention improvements in mood. There’s a reason why gazing into the eyes of our pets feels so good; this special way of connecting increases levels of the “love hormone” oxytocin, which expands our capacity for trust, helps us feel secure, and creates room for calm. Likewise, interacting with a beloved pet often elevates levels of serotonin and dopamine (two chemicals that boost feelings of well-being, such as happiness and motivation) while lowering the stress hormone cortisol.

These benefits are not limited to the relationships we have with our pets. Indeed, animals included in therapeutic and educational interventions can have a powerful, supportive impact on people’s health and development. For example, mental health professionals may work with a trained therapy animal to enhance their treatment approach or relationship with a client. Often, the nonjudgmental presence of an animal in therapy can create an environment where clients feel safe to discuss their experiences. Other settings – such as hospitals, classrooms, and even airports – have incorporated human-animal interactions to help brighten days, assist with learning objectives, and lower anxiety.

Not surprisingly, children benefit greatly from having pets at home. Beyond the joy and comfort a pet brings to a child’s life, bonding with an animal can actually lower a child’s likelihood of developing pet-related allergies by as much as 33%. In fact, children who have pets early in life tend to develop stronger immune systems overall. Moreover, learning to care for a pet – a significant commitment, to be sure – helps teach children responsibility and may instill a sense of empathy and compassion for others.

Finally, for both children and adults, owning a dog (or another active pet) promotes healthy exercise and can improve social interactions. Studies have shown that people tend to view individuals with pets as more friendly and approachable than those without an animal by their side. Pets also serve as a great icebreaker and enjoyable topic of conversation with new people. Animals’ unique ability to encourage or ease social exchanges may lead to the development of rich human relationships, thereby lessening feelings of loneliness, isolation, and depression.

Now that you know the many perks of sharing your life with a pet, we hope you’ll appreciate your animal friends even more and give them all the love and affection they deserve. If you are considering adopting a pet, please visit ddfl.org or visit one of our shelters today. From horses to dogs to guinea pigs, we know we have the perfect gem for you.