Our pets aren't just our best friends; they're members of the family. While their companionship can bring us so much joy, pets are also good for our health, according to a wealth of studies—sometimes in unexpected ways. And the more attached you are to your critter, the stronger the protective benefits may be. Check out the top animals that can lend a helping paw, hoof or wing to your health.
#1 Pet with benefits: Dogs
"The breadth and depth of what dogs do for our happiness and longevity is pretty remarkable," said Marty Becker, DVM, author of “Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover's Soul.”
Studies link dog ownership to lower blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels, plus a reduced risk of heart disease. A 2011 review in the Journal of physical activity and Health found that dog owners are 34 percent more likely to meet their exercise requirements (based on the federal guidelines) than nonowners.
There are also the mood-enhancing perks.
"Simply petting a dog is like a spa treatment," Becker said. "After just a minute or two, you have this massive release of positive neurochemicals like dopamine and serotonin." extra bonus: kids who grow up in homes with dogs are less likely to have allergies.
#2 Pet with benefits: Cats
No need to hiss at this second-place finish, cat lovers. You're probably getting the same stress relief as dog owners; there are just fewer studies to prove it. In one, when stockbrokers with high blood pressure were given the choice of adopting a cat or a dog, both animals significantly lowered their owners' stress responses. And cats earned a few more points toward a healthy-pet pedigree when researchers at the University of Minnesota found that people who had never owned a cat had a 40 percent higher risk of death from heart attack than cat owners.
#3 Pet with benefits: Fish
Want a little dose of calm?
"Watching fish, like listening to music, can distract you in a good way," Becker said.
Numerous studies show that spending time in nature improves well-being, and an aquarium lets you bring that healing action indoors. In fact, one study revealed that for patients about to undergo dental surgery, gazing at a fish tank for 20 minutes was as effective at lowering stress levels as being hypnotized.
#4 Pet with benefits: Birds
Human companions for ages, birds have only recently been recognized for their healing properties, said Gregg Takashima, DVM, president of the American association of human-animal bond veterinarians. Like fish, these small-space-friendly creatures offer "nature on demand"—a relaxing or even energizing touch of wild beauty in your home. And they provide the same interactive pleasures that make cats and dogs so popular.
#5 Pet with benefits: Horses
A list of healthy pets wouldn't be complete without horses. Sure, their size and strength can make them a bit intimidating—but therein lies their healing power.
"By gaining control of a creature so much larger than you, you can gain control of a larger problem in life," Becker explained.
That's why you'll find horses used in hundreds of animal-assisted therapy programs. Working with horses can even reduce kids' stress hormones, according to a 2014 study. And the muscle control horseback riding requires makes it an excellent toner and balance builder for just about anyone.