The Internet is filled with stories of dogs and cats who saved their humans: the cat that curled up beside an abandoned baby in a box and kept it warm, the pound puppy that alerted its sleeping owners of a gas leak, the lab mix that defended its human from a bear attack.
But the truth is, even if your dog or cat never achieves hero status, a pet can save your life in other ways. The nonprofit Human Animal Bond Research Initiative estimates that pets help save $11.7 billion in healthcare costs. The largest savings is in doctor office visits—pet owners see their docs 0.6 times less than non-pet owners.
Here are just a few healthy benefits that you can get from your dog or cat that might make you want to give them an extra treat tonight:
1. They do your heart good.
The heart health benefits of owning a pet are so significant the American Heart Association issued a scientific statement saying so in 2013. Studies find that pet owners have dramatically lower blood pressure than people who don’t have an animal in their lives. One small study found that people who agreed to adopt a pet for the purposes of a blood pressure study also saw their BPs drop. But that’s not all. For some reason, pets may also help people lower the levels of bad cholesterol and another dangerous blood fat, triglycerides.
2. They protect your emotional health.
Not only are pet owners less likely to be depressed and feel stressed, new research has found that animals are a source of unconditional love and comfort that can help ease the pain of those who are depressed or people, like war veterans, with post-traumatic stress disorder. One reason: Studies have found that bonding with a pet raises levels of a hormone called oxytocin, which lowers levels of depression and anxiety and may help reduce heart rate, a physical manifestation of stress.
3. They help you lose weight.
Research has looked at obesity rates among pet owners and found that owning a dog—and walking it—is linked to a reduced risk of being obese.
4. They motivate you to keep fit.
People who walk their dogs regularly are about two and a half times more likely than non-dog owners to get the recommended amount of exercise a week (150 minutes). In one study, researchers at Northwestern University gave overweight participants with overweight dogs dietary and physical activity counseling and put their dogs on a low-calorie diet. They also recruited some overweight non-dog owners for the study. A year later, the two human groups had lost about the same amount of weight, but the pet group reported that they loved to exercise with their dogs, so they did it more often.
5. They may protect you from cancer.
Exposure to some farm animals has been linked to certain forms of cancer, specifically non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, an immune system cancer, possibly as the result of exposure to environmental pesticides or viruses. But owning a pet seems to be protective. Researchers from three California institutions that explored the link speculate that pet ownership may help bolster the immune system.
6. They can keep you alive after a heart attack.
One study funded by the National Institutes of Health found that pet owners who had a heart attack were more likely to be alive a year after the event than those who didn’t have pets, regardless of the severity of the heart attack.
7. They help ease pain.
People with fibromyalgia, a condition characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain, who spent time in their doctor’s waiting room with a therapy dog felt less pain, fatigue and emotional distress than people who weren’t exposed to the dog, found a 2013 study published in the journal, Pain Medicine. Oxytocin may be at work here too: Research has found that therapy dog visits can raise oxytocin levels which can, among other things, decrease pain.
8. They make you feel less lonely.
Loneliness kills. Studies have found that people who feel lonely are at high risk of premature death than people who don’t feel lonely. One way pets can help ease loneliness is, of course, by just being there, offering comfort and affections. But pets, particularly dogs, can also provide some grease for social interactions. A dog is a great conversation starter.