For those who love animals, it’s virtually impossible to stay in a bad mood when a pair of loving puppy eyes meets yours, or when a super-soft cat rubs up against your hand.

Pets can be there for you in ways that people can’t. They can offer love and companionship, and can also enjoy comfortable silences, keep secrets and are excellent snugglers. And they are an excellent antidote to loneliness. In fact, research shows that nursing home residents reported less loneliness when visited by dogs than when they spent time with other people!

All these benefits can reduce the amount of stress people experience in response to feelings of social isolation and lack of social support from people. Older adults often lack companionship, social connections and opportunities for recreation during their retirement years.

Owning a cat can significantly boost the health and happiness of a senior, giving them a feeling of purpose and the knowledge that they are needed. Cats are ideal pets for seniors as they are relatively low-maintenance in comparison to dogs.  They don’t need formal exercise like regular walks, or constant trips to the backyard, since they take care of their own exercise routine during play and confine their bathroom habits to a single area.

Dog ownership increases the odds for survival in persons who have had a heart attack from 1 in 15 to 1 in 87. Pet ownership also has increased the percent of people who survived at least one year after hospitalization for heart problems. Only 6% of non-pet owners survived versus 28% of people with pets.

Pet ownership may be only one of several variables that influenced this improved survival, but even a 2-3% difference is significant. In addition, pets may actually lessen the risk of heart attacks. Cats offer protection against certain physical conditions. If adopted before or shortly after a child is born, owning a cat reduces the risk of developing animal allergies, asthma, and possibly other illnesses as well.

One study found that children living with pets were 13-18% less likely to miss school due to illness than children without pets. Researchers who measured the salivary immunologobulin levels of young pet owners found that their immune function was less likely to be in the sub-normal range than that of non-pet-owners. Additionally, cats can provide particular therapeutic benefits for children with conditions such as autism, especially those who suffer from motor coordination problems.

Dogs have been shown to reduce blood pressure in a number of populations. Studies in women undergoing stress tests, have demonstrated that the presence of a dog had more of an effect on lowering blood pressure than the presence of friends. Similarly, children who had a dog present during their physical examination showed lower heart rate, blood pressure, and behavioral distress than when the dog was not present. Stockbrokers who had dogs or cats in their offices when they had to carry out stressful tasks had smaller increases in blood pressure than those who did not have a pet present.

Some people who have periodic seizures have reported that their dogs can sense the onset of a seizure before they can. Now it has been found that dogs can be specially trained to recognize some type of change prior to a seizure, and signal the owner of the imminent seizure. This gives the owner sufficient time to prepare, such as moving away from a hot stove. These dogs are called ‘seizure-alert’ or ‘seizure-response’ dogs, and can be trained to signal their owners from 15 to 45 minutes prior to a seizure.

In addition to the tremors and stiffness that Parkinson’s patients experience, they also face a problem called ‘freezing.’ Their feet freeze in place while the rest of their body keeps moving, causing the person to fall. As a result, some people with Parkinson’s may tend to become sedentary, reluctant to move, and reclusive. Parkinson’s helper dogs have been trained to identify when a person with Parkinson’s is ‘freezing.’ If the dog touches the person’s foot, it breaks the freeze and the person can continue walking. Medical experts really do not know how or why this works. In addition to breaking the ‘freeze,’ the dogs are taught to prevent their partners from falling by counterbalancing and helping them regain their footing. If the person would fall, the dog can help the person up.Studies at UCLA found that pet ownership corresponds to overall better health and fewer medical visits – as many as 21 percent fewer trips to the doctor. Whether we walk our dogs because they need it or because we enjoy a walk more when we have companionship, dog owners tend to do more walking than non-pet owners.  Because exercise is benefical for stress management and overall health, owning a dog can be credited with increasing these benefits.