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Ask any of Americas hundred-million-plus pet owners if their animal companions make life a little sweeter, and youre bound to hear a gleeful purr. Our critters make us so happy that, in return for their company, we willingly scoop poop, clean cages, shell out for organic kibble, and stock an arsenal of supplies to help cope with all that hair.

We clearly think theyre worth it—and maybe they truly are. A wealth of studies suggests that pets are good for your health, sometimes in unexpected ways. The right pet can lower your risk for heart disease, curb stress, and even sniff out serious illnesses. In fact, the more attached you are to your pet, the stronger its protective health benefits may be.


Of course, not all pets are created equal. Some, in fact, are dangerous. So we asked three animal authorities to dig into the research and cough up (sorry, we couldnt resist) Americas Healthiest Pets. Read on to see if your “best friend” is on our list of six winners.

1. Dogs
The scientific findings are full of good news for the nearly 40% of us who own dogs; that number includes President Obama, who recently made good on a family campaign promise to his daughters and adopted an allergy-friendly Portuguese Water Dog.

“The breadth and depth of what dogs do to benefit humans happiness and longevity is pretty remarkable,” says judge Marty Becker, DVM, author of The Healing Power of Pets. Studies link dog ownership to lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels. And dog owners seem to live longer after a heart attack and get more exercise than nonowners. Youre more likely to stroll with a dog than solo, and Fido may even beat your best girlfriend as a motivating force: Unlike humans, dogs never need an arm-twisting to take a brisk walk.

Then theres the mood-boosting benefit. “Simply petting a dog is like a spa treatment,” Dr. Becker says. “After just a minute or two you have this massive release of positive neurochemicals like dopamine and serotonin. And the dog gets the same relief.” Add to that the role canines play as service companions and the striking ways that theyre contributing to medicine—from detecting cancer to predicting epileptic seizures—and theres really no argument (except from cantankerous cat people) that mans (and womans!) best friend is aptly nicknamed.

What kind of dog is best? Dr. Becker especially sings the praises of small, mixed-breed shelter pups. Small is good because “you can take the dog with you and fully integrate her into the fabric of your life,” he says.

Sadly, despite the chatter about the First Familys search for a hypoallergenic dog, no breed is truly allergy-proof, says judge Gregg Takashima, DVM, board chair for the Delta Society, a nonprofit organization that helps connect people with service and therapy animals. Dander—tiny flakes of animal skin—is the true source of trouble.

But because pet hair may also play some role, breeds that dont shed much, like poodles or poodle mixes (labradoodles, golden-doodles, and so forth), and the Portuguese water dog (the Obamas choice), are better bets for some people with allergies. Another tip to reduce allergic reactions: Bathe your pet once a week with a nonsoap shampoo thats perfume and additive-free, Dr. Takashima says.

But if doggie upkeep just isnt for you? Piggyback on the health perks of dogs by spending time with their owners. Join your neighbor on her daily walk with her pup, and her benefit is yours, too.

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2. Cats
No need to hiss at this second-place finish, cat lovers. More than 30 percent of Americans live with at least one cat, and theyre probably getting the same stress relief and happy-hormone release from their pet of choice that dog-owners get; there are simply fewer studies to prove it, says judge Alan Beck, ScD, director of the Center for Human-Animal Bond at the Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine.

In one study, when stockbrokers with high blood pressure were given the choice of adopting a cat or dog, both animals significantly lowered their owners stress responses. And last year cats earned a few more points toward a healthy-pet pedigree when researchers at the University of Minnesota found that people whod never owned a cat had a 40 percent higher risk of death from heart attack than cat owners.

The busier you are, the healthier choice a feline may be. “Cats are generally low-maintenance, so you dont have to feel guilty about getting home late,” Dr. Beck says. Many cat lovers claim that when theyre ill or upset their pets draw near and cozy up to them, offering a soothing presence. Data is lacking on this healing phenomenon, but Dr. Becker notes that cats have a temperature of about 101.5 degrees (“theyre like furry hot water bottles”) and purr at 25 vibrations per second, a frequency that may help lower blood pressure.

While its true that more people are allergic to cats than dogs, our panelists note that allowing your kids that pined-for kitten may be the best way to ensure they grow up sneeze-and-wheeze-free. “Most animal allergies show up in kids whove been protected from any exposure,” Dr. Beck says.

Two winning breeds: the American shorthair, which is long-lived and generally good with kids, and the Siamese, prized for its intelligence and companionability.

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3. Fish
The meditative escape of an aquarium is a great alternative if youre stressed out or allergic to furry friends (or both). “Watching fish, like listening to music, can distract you in a good way,” Dr. Becker says. Numerous studies show that spending time in nature and around wildlife reduces stress and improves well-being, and an aquarium lets you bring that healing action indoors. “Its a little ecosystem in your house,” Dr. Becker says.

Watching fish glide by can offer such a reliable sense of calm that some high-stress settings, like doctors waiting rooms, are stocked with aquariums. In fact, one study found 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.

Though fish dont need grooming or daily walks, they can require quite a bit of maintenance, especially if theyre a rare or saltwater species. The care and patience involved can be a good thing, especially for kids, because it provides a great opportunity to be a nurturer. Just be sure to talk with experts at a pet shop about the level of commitment required for the fish you prefer. Some proven winners for beginners: bloodfin tetras, bettas, and, yes, goldfish. If your anxiety peaks at the office, try a desktop fishbowl, and let your attention drift to your finned friend a few times during the day.

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4. Birds
Human companions for ages, birds have only recently been recognized for their healing properties, Dr. Takashima says. Like fish, these small-space-friendly creatures offer “nature on demand”—a relaxing, even energizing, taste of wild beauty in your home. They provide the same interactive pleasures that make cats and dogs hugely popular. Better still, several species, like Amazon Greys and cockatiels, will chat right back with training. Cockatiels, budgies, and other small birds can truly thrive in captivity, and they bond with their owners for life. “They hold interest for all ages,” Dr. Beck says.

But you dont have to go the caged route: Watching birds in your backyard can offer a health-boosting nature fix. Ensure a lively show by stocking feeders with several types of seed to attract a range of birds, and then grab a good guide, like A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America ($12.97; Amazon.com). In one study, parents who installed a bird feeder and taught their kids about the birds reported increased family togetherness.

Or, try the DVD version: Research shows that viewing videos of birds, primates, and fish after experiencing a stressful activity can lower blood pressure and heart rate. Try the breathtaking Planet Earth: The Complete BBC Series ($47.49; Amazon.com).

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5. Horses
No list of healthy pets would be complete without horses, our panelists say. Sure, their size and strength can make them a bit intimidating to a novice rider—but therein lies their substantial healing power. “By gaining control of a horse, a creature so much larger than yourself, you can gain control of a larger problem in life,” Dr. Becker explains.

Thats why youll find horses used in hundreds of animal-assisted therapy programs that benefit at-risk youth, abused women, people with disabilities, those with eating disorders, and other groups. Horseback riding also offers a tremendous sense of freedom to someone whos typically wheelchair-bound, Dr. Takashima says.

And the muscle control it requires makes it an excellent toner and balance-builder for anyone. True, for many of us, theres no room in the backyard—or the budget—for an equine friend. But you can always volunteer to groom at a local stable, or check out your areas horse-rental programs (try the Yellow Pages or search online) and saddle up as often as you can.

6. Hamsters
Our judges say these gentle creatures—and other “pocket pets,” including gerbils, guinea pigs, and rabbits—can bond with people and give kids experience with responsibility, as well as an appreciation for life and death. But take note: Hamsters can carry salmonella, so the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding them if you have children younger than 5. See Three Pets to Avoid for other no-nos.