First, the most obvious: Pets increase our activity level, whether we're walking a dog multiple times per day or playing with a cat. Taking care of a pet also helps us feel worthy, useful and less lonely, says Dr. Shelly Daume of Deer Ridge Animal Hospital in Jackson. Even simple actions like petting or talking to an animal have a calming effect.
"Pets have been shown to decrease stress in humans," says Daume. "Having a pet can decrease cortisol and increase serotonin levels, and that helps you feel better. It helps lower blood pressure and heart rate and those things lower the risk of heart disease. Pets can help with depression because they love unconditionally and will listen to you forever."
While cats and dogs are the most interactive animals, Daume says pets like birds and fish can also do the body good. Though you probably aren't cuddling these pets, they still provide a reason to get up and moving, and you can still talk to them.
Dr. Sean Byrd of Skyview Animal Clinic says dogs and humans actually benefit each other when they go on a weight loss program together. When humans see how a pet's extra weight damages his health, they're likely to monitor their pet's feeding and exercise, and do the same for themselves. Both humans and animals benefit by eating less, walking more and getting out of the house, says Byrd.
There's good news for others in the household, too: "Children raised around cats and dogs are healthier later in life," says Byrd. "They have fewer illnesses and allergies, including cat/dog allergies, among others."