Dogs and cats are more than just furry, four-legged family members (that many of us tend to spoil and treat nearly as if they’re our very own human children). Scientific research has shown that pet ownership is linked to some very interesting and potentially significant physical and psychological benefits that you might not expect.

While playing and cuddling with your cat or pup are obvious and enjoyable ways to strengthen the bond between the two of you, there are even more reasons to appreciate having them in your life. Here are just four amazing ways our pets help us become healthier humans.

Heart Disease Protection

According to the American Heart Association, numerous studies have pointed out that pet owners tend to have a reduced risk of heart disease. One major reason behind this may have to do with regular dog walking, which obviously increases physical activity. Another reason may be that more health conscious people also tend to be pet owners, and since pets provide some degree of social support much like a real family member, they may actually help their owners stick with new healthy habits.

Stress and Anxiety Reduction

Just being in the presence of your beloved pet could help lower your blood pressure. A study involving human-dog interactions showed that both talking to and petting dogs resulted in lower blood pressure levels, with petting appearing to have the greatest effect. There have been similar findings with cats as well. Playing with dogs and cats elevates serotonin and dopamine levels, which are the feel-good hormones that boost our moods and make us feel more relaxed.

Improved Immunity

If you’re a parent, it may be worth giving in to finally getting the puppy that your kids have been pestering you about for weeks or months on end. One study found that infants who were exposed to dogs experienced reduced risks of developing certain allergies. Dogs definitely aren’t the cleanest creatures in the world, but the dirt and allergens they bring in from outside may actually boost their family members’ immune systems. Cats also expose their owners to dander and other allergens, which may help them develop better resistance to allergic reactions.

Longer Lifespan and Enhanced Social Life

A pet can provide a sense of companionship for people who are prone to feelings of loneliness and isolation. People who feel lonely are more likely to suffer from depression, and since owning a pet can keep these negative effects at bay, having to care for one can promote feelings of being needed and wanted, which can help pet owners live happy and longer lives. Likewise, dogs are natural people magnets. Walking out in public with a dog can help almost anyone meet new people in the dog park or on the street as a way to easily spark new relationships.

Pets are pretty great, and in addition to the above benefits, bonding with a living thing that’s far simpler and less judgmental than another human can help us grow our love and appreciation for nature and life itself. Now go give your cat or dog (or maybe even your parakeet or iguana) a big hug to thank them for all that they do for you!