Why are we so hell-bent on making these critters part of the family? Probably because of the incredible health and happiness benefits they offer —something researchers are only recently beginning to take a closer look at, says Marty Becker, DVM, the featured veterinarian at Vetstreet.com and veterinary contributor for Good Morning America.

“The more time you spend with your four-legged companion, the better you feel,” explains Dr. Becker.

Check out these seven science-backed ways pets boost the bliss in our lives. You’ll feel so appreciative you’ll never lose your cool over a spilled water dish again!

1. They make us more active

Pets and happinesss

“Toby doesn’t quite understand that he’s a cat,” says Peter Jiang, external communications manager at Coca-Cola Amatil NZ (CCANZ). “He frequently wakes me up in the morning with a toy or piece of paper in his mouth wanting to play ‘catch’. We’ve also taught him to do some cool tricks such as sit, shake and stand up. He doesn’t do these tricks for free though, you’ll need to compensate him generously with delicious treats. I surprised my Fiancée with Toby as a kitten 3 years ago. It was love at first sight and we haven’t looked back since.”

Whether you’re tossing a tennis ball at the dog park or dancing around the living room with your cat, you’re moving around — and that means burning kilojules, getting your heart rate up and scoring the big mood and energy boosts provided by quick bursts of exercise.

Even if all you do is walk your pooch down the footpath and back twice a day, that exercise adds up over time. “Dog owners walk 79 per cent further each day than people who don’t have a dog,” says David Niven, Ph.D., a psychologist and social scientist at Ohio State University and the author of 100 Simple Secrets Why Dogs Make Us Happy.

It’s not as intense as spin class, sure, but you’re working off more calories than you would if you’d chilled out on the couch.

2. They keep us healthy

The American Heart Association confirms it: Pet ownership is linked to a reduction in cardiovascular disease risk factors, such as lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels and a lower likelihood of obesity.

Another study found that cat owners were 40 per cent less likely than their feline-free counterparts to have a heart attack or stroke, says Dr. Becker.

Beyond the exercise factor, experts aren’t entirely sure why pets improve our health, but they certainly do. “Think of your dog or cat as free medicine you already have in your home that can help you maintain optimum health,” adds Dr. Becker.

3. They help us develop empathy

Some research suggests that kids who have pets become more nurturing, giving adults — perhaps because they learn from a young age that all living creatures need comfort and feel pain. But even people who bring home their first pet as an adult tend to develop a stronger sense of empathy, thanks to their furry or feathered buddy. 

pets and happiness

“Josie is the princess of the household,” says Danielle Zinzan, internal communications manager at CCANZ. “ She'll only drink from a running faucet while you watch - don't turn away or the process will start again. Her favourite place is curled up in front of the fire or awaiting your bare ankles from under the couch.”

“Taking care of an animal reminds you that all humans and animals have needs that may eclipse your own, and you’re able to see things from others’ point of view. That helps you become more caring and compassionate,” says Niven.

4. They give us a self-esteem kick

Maybe it’s because they make us feel needed — after all, someone has to fill up that food bowl and stop by the dog run every morning! Or perhaps it has to do with the unconditional love they shower us with, or the fact that they’re completely nonjudgmental about our lifestyles. 

pets and happiness

“Meet Barney,” says Raquel Burton, marketing manager, beer and cider at CCANZ. “When he’s not ripping his beloved toys apart or traipsing mud all through the house, he can be found sneaking onto the couch for one of his frequent naps. He’s not meant to be on the couch and he knows it. If you look closely you can see his cheeky side eye, wondering how long I’ll let him get away with it!”

Whatever the reason, a 2011 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that pet owners reported higher levels of self-esteem as well as a greater sense of belonging and a more meaningful existence than non-pet owners.

5. They increase our social connections

Ever notice that when you’re out with your pet, strangers are more apt to smile, say hello, and even strike up a conversation? And when you share a goofy video clip or retell a funny story about Fluffy or Fido, people immediately chime in and share their own pet’s similarly silly antics.

Those brief exchanges seem meaningless, but they actually leave us feeling less isolated and more in sync with our community, says Niven. And that makes us happier because people are hard-wired to feel good when they feel connected to others. 

pets and happiness

Pet owners have higher levels of self-esteem as well as a greater sense of belonging than non-pet owners, according to a 2011 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Animals are conversation starters and icebreakers, so it’s no surprise that pet parent dating websites, pet/human fitness classes and other social gatherings for pet owners are becoming more popular.

“People who have pets are perceived by others to be more social and open,” says Niven. “That can make your social circle wider and more diverse, resulting in less loneliness.”

6. Petting them brightens our mood

Sure, it’s soothing for pets to be stroked and touched by us, but we get a huge physiological payback too: Just a few minutes of petting a pooch signals our brain to crank up production of the hormones serotonin and oxytocin — two calming chemicals that make us feel more relaxed and at peace, according to research from the University of Missouri-Columbia

pets and happiness

Just running your hand against your dog’s fur can decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol. 

And running your hand against your dog’s fur also decreases levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The study only involved canines, but Niven suspects the same serenity boost can occur when you pet, nuzzle or rub any animal companion.

7. They bring order to our lives

Going for daily walks, establishing playtime and eating routines and making regular vet appointments — yeah, it can all start to feel like drudge work after a while. But there’s an upside to responsible pet parent behaviour: It helps bring routine and discipline to our day, and that benefits us as much as it does them, asserts Niven.

“These mundane tasks become habits to bring structure to the day, and when we feel like there is order and purpose to our lives, we tend to feel happier and be more productive.”