Hang with your pet! Here's how a dog or cat can bring serious cheer to your life.

pet life
Credit: Getty Images

Getty ImagesJust as human friends can make you happy in the deepest ways, so too can the furry variety, research shows. "One of my earliest studies found that dog owners are as emotionally close to their dogs as they are to their closest family member," says Sandra Barker, PhD, professor of psychiatry at Virginia Commonwealth University and director of the university's Center for Human-Animal Interaction. While your sister might not be pleased to hear that, it's good to know that pet ownership has many benefits—like the ones here.

1. They keep your stress in check
When your dog starts wagging his tail, it's hard to obsess about that pile of work you just left on your desk. In fact, in one of Barker's studies, her team had people complete a stressful task, then measured their brain waves, blood pressure, heart rate, salivary cortisol and self-reported stress after 30 minutes with their own dog or a therapy dog. "We saw a consistent pattern of stress reduction across all measures," says Barker. "Other researchers have found reduced stress in owners interacting with their dogs after stressful tasks, compared with interacting with friends and spouses."

2. They get you moving
Especially if you have a pup. "Dogs require at least 30 minutes of exercise a day," says Ernie Ward, DVM, founder of the Association for Pet Obesity and Prevention, "and that just so happens to be about how many minutes humans need, too." Dog owners are 34 percent more likely to meet federal guidelines for exercise, according to a 2011 study in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health. And exercise is a proven mood booster: In a Norwegian study, people who exercised had better mental health than those who were sedentary. Another study suggested that walking briskly for 30 minutes could have a significant impact on mild to moderate depression symptoms.

3. They combat loneliness
In the age of FOMO, having a pet to keep you company can prevent that "Am I the only one who doesn't have plans tonight?" feeling. "Researchers have found a reduction in loneliness in pet-owning women living alone, while others have seen reduced loneliness in nursing home residents after animal-assisted activities," says Barker. But then, if you're an animal lover, you don't need us to tell you about that comfort you get when you're working late into the night and your cat cozies up by your side, or when your dog gleefully greets you after a long, solitary commute.

4. They boost your confidence
Sure, getting a promotion at work can give your self-image a lift—but so can owning a dog. According to one study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, dog owners scored higher in certain well-being categories, including self-esteem, than nonowners. "Because pets can decrease loneliness, anxiety and depression, there's a good chance dog owners will feel more self-assured," explains Barker. The same authors also found that when faced with social rejection, dog owners were better able to stay upbeat—and keep negative feelings at bay.

Not a cat or dog person? You can still get happiness perks by owning a fish (or three). Scientists at the National Marine Aquarium in England discovered that looking at an aquarium improved people's moods—and that the more fish they added, the more those folks' heart rates fell.