The Human-Animal Bond: 7 Science-Backed Health Benefits of Pet Ownership

The ultimate friend with benefits.

When you were eight you sat your parents down to watch a PowerPoint filled with clip art and multicolored word art. Your goal? Convince them to get you a dog.

Your reasoning may have included the promise to clean up its poop and the fact that every other kid in your class had a pet, so it’s only fair.

As the years went by, you became more and more aware of how much of an asset an animal companion is: they are a running partner, vacuum cleaner, alarm clock, and they make it socially acceptable to both talk to yourself when you’re alone in your apartment and spend Friday night on the couch watching Netflix.

But beyond the day to day perks of sharing your space with a furry friend, having a pet actually has some pretty impressive health benefits (that your PowerPoint really could have benefited from).

“We observed evidence that pet owners fared better, both in terms of well-being outcomes and individual differences, than non-owners on several dimensions,” said Allen R. McConnell, PhD, lead researcher on a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “Specifically, pet owners had greater self-esteem, were more physically fit, tended to be less lonely, were more conscientious, were more extroverted, tended to be less fearful and tended to be less preoccupied than non-owners.”

If your roommate is giving you a hard time about adopting a pet, you’re trying to decide for yourself if it’s worth it, or you’re just wondering if your obsession with your cat has any long-term benefit, here are the scientifically-backed reasons why a pet does wonders for your health.

Combat Stress

Stress is an unavoidable daily occurrence, but over time that load can have a significant effect on our health. Chronically elevated stress levels lead to depression, anxiety, lower immune function, erratic mood, and high blood pressure. Not to mention increases risk of serious diseases like cancer, autoimmune diseases like lupus and arthritis, and cardiovascular disease. Clearly we should be taking steps to reduce the effects of stress on the body—and owning a pet is a great place to start.

A study published in the American Journal of Cardiology found that the hearts of pet owners adapted better to stressful situations than non-pet owners. Another study found that married couples who owned a pet had lower heart rates and blood pressure at rest and during stressful tests than those without pets. And they better responded to and more quickly recovered from stress when they were with their pets than with a spouse or friend.

If you’re unable to have a pet of your own, stop by a friends house for a visit: The simple act of petting or other simple interaction with a pet causes your brain to release the calming hormones oxytocin and serotonin, and lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Strengthen Your Immune System

If your family has always had pets, you may have been given a leg up when it comes to your immunity. Children who grow up with a pet are healthier and experience fewer infections than those who don’t. A study published in the journal Pediatrics showed that children who had a dog during their first year of life had 31 percent fewer respiratory tract infections, 44 percent fewer ear infections, and needed fewer antibiotics than kids who didn’t. (Cats also had a beneficial effect on kids’ health, but not as strong as dogs.)

Being exposed to pet dander early on can also help prevent allergies in the future: children under the age of one who had two or more dogs or cats as family pets saw a reduction in allergy development by the time they were six.

“It’s more support in a growing body of evidence that exposure to pets early in life can stimulate the immune system to do a better job of fighting off infection,” said Dr. Danielle Fisher, of St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA.

Improve Heart Health

Pets work their way right into our hearts—and they also may help boost its health. A number of studies support the fact that pet ownership can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, according The American Heart Association. Research even indicates that pets help lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and that owners with heart issues are more likely to survive heart attacks. Another study found that owning a cat lowered people’s risk of cardiovascular issues, like fatal heart attacks or stroke.

And having pets may even help people recover better from heart complications. A study funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH) that looked at heart attack patients found that a year later dog owners were significantly more likely to still be alive than were those who did not own dogs (regardless of the severity of the heart attack).

 A Catalyst for Positive Lifestyle Changes

If your own well-being (or the impending summer months spent in a bathing suit) isn’t enough motivation to get your health under control, your pets well-being may be. A study published in Tobacco Control found that more than a quarter of pet-owning smokers tried to quit smoking once they learned about the negative health effects of secondhand smoke on their animals. And the risks are real: Cats living in smoking households are more prone to oral squamous cell carcinoma, lymphoma, and mammary cancer. Short faced dogs like the Pug and English Bulldog are affected by lung cancer, while long faced dogs like the Collie and Greyhound commonly develop nasal cancer.

“The dangers of pet exposure to second-hand smoke is motivation to owners to quit or attempt to quit smoking, motivate household members to quit, and to forbid smoking inside the home,” said the study.

Plus, if your list of excuses for not going to the gym is endless, a pet can help with that, too. It doesn’t matter if it’s cold, or raining, or there’s a Breaking Bad marathon on TV—your dog needs to pee. Now.

Studies show that dog owners get more exercise and other health benefits than the rest of us. A study found that people who got a dog were 34 percent more likely to meet federal benchmarks of physical activity, walking 30 minutes, five times a week. Other NIH studies of more than 2,000 adults found that dog owners who regularly walked their dogs were more physically active and less likely to be obese, and walked faster and for longer periods of time than those who didn’t own or walk a dog.

Weight Loss

That increase in activity translates to lower numbers on the scale, too. A study found that people who walked dogs for up to 20 minutes five days a week lost an average of 14.4 pounds in a year, without making any changing to their diet.

It turns out your dog may be the best exercise partner (plus you don’t have to listen them complain about work or rehash the awful Tinder date they had during your workout). A year-long study found that walking an overweight dog helped both the animals and their owners lose weight. The dogs provided support in similar ways to a human exercise buddy, but with greater consistency and without any negative influence.

Mental Health

Anyone who’s woken up by licks (instead of a screaming alarm clock) or is greeted at the door by an excited pet after a long day at work knows their ability to immediately turn our mood around. And scientists are able to back the mental health benefits. Research has shown that cats provide emotional support, improve moods, and contribute to the overall morale of their owners, while dogs provide comfort and companionship, decrease stress and promote relaxation, according to the CDC.

Pets can also increase a person’s sense of belonging, self-esteem and meaningful existence, according to research published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Pet owners were also happier, healthier and more adjusted, and report less depression and appear to cope with grief, stress and loss better than non-pet owners than non-owners.

Improve Social Connections

Pets may be man’s best friend, but they will help you improve your friendship with other humans as well.

Studies show that pet owners tend to have fulfilled and busy social life live longer, happier lives. A study in Applied Developmental Science found that young adults with a strong attachment to cats and dogs also reported feeling more connected to their relationships and communities. Another study in The British Journal of Psychology proved that dogs can act as catalysts for human social interactions, finding that being accompanied by a dog increased the frequency of social interactions, especially interactions with strangers.