According to the PDSA, forty-nine percent of UK adults own a pet. That’s almost half of us! If you are one of the forty-nine percent you will already have an idea why the company of an animal can be such a pleasure. You’ll know that sometimes nothing beats spending time with a furry, feathered or even scaly friend. But you might not be aware that these relationships are scientifically proven to bring a whole range of benefits to our health and well-being.

Here we highlight just a few:

1. Reduced stress and improved psychological wellbeing

Interacting with our pets through physical affection, play or even a meaningful look releases the calming hormone oxytocin in both owner and animal, facilitating the experience of positive emotions. Humans also experience reductions in heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol, a major stress hormone, as a result of these interactions.

In fact, a recent study found that university students who petted a cat or dog for just 10 minutes per day showed significant reductions in cortisol levels immediately following these interactions. Other studies have shown that similar animal interaction programs positively impact on symptoms of depression and anxiety, boosting overall wellbeing.

What better excuse do you need to give your pet a cuddle?

2. Improved physical health

We all know that regular exercise improves our health and wellbeing, and reduces the risk of premature death. Having a dog facilitates engagement in and adherence to regular physical activity through daily dog walks. And, as walking is a low cost activity, it’s accessible to a wide range of people.

Plus, getting out and about with your dog provides the opportunity for novel and pleasurable experiences, such as learning new things about nature or witnessing beautiful landscapes. These experiences can give rise to a range of positive emotions, the presence of which can increase your resilience.

Having an animal in our lives has been associated with a number of specific health benefits too. One study found that cat owners had reduced risk of fatal cardiovascular disease compared with those who had never owned a cat. Research has also shown that incorporating the routine care of a fish into a teenager’s diabetes self-care plan leads to improvements in disease monitoring, resulting in lower blood glucose levels.

Although it is not fully understood how pet ownership and care is linked to these health benefits, studies such as these highlight that owning a pet may carry more rewards than we might think.

3. Increased social contact

Having a pet brings a sense of companionship, security and comfort. In particular it can be helpful for older people and those who experience loneliness to share their daily routine with an animal.

Owning a pet is a great way to connect with other people too. Walking a dog often leads to interaction with other dog owners and this can help those who may otherwise be isolated to stay socially connected. And, nowadays we can make connections with others without even leaving our homes, through all forms of social media and shared interest forums. There are even online dating sites for animal lovers.

4. Child Development

We already know that social relationships are essential to child and adolescent development. But, most research studies have focused on human relationships.

A recent systematic review, however, found associations between pet ownership and a number of emotional health benefits in young people including increases in self-esteem and reduced feelings of loneliness. There were also positive associations with increased social competence, social interaction, social networks and social play behavior. In fact, the benefits extend so far that a further review indicates that reading to a dog improves reading performance.

So no matter what type of pet you have – a Chinchilla, Labrador or Goldfish- there is strong evidence that the relationship you have with them contributes in a range of ways to the health and wellbeing of you and your family.

If you’re not a pet owner you can still gain access to these benefits. Why not do some voluntary work with animals? Or take the time to interact with pets owned by friends and family members? You too could notice the positive changes that occur as a result of connecting with animals.