Pets brighten our day. They're there for us when times are tough, offering unconditional love and loyalty, and stick with us through thick and thin. A cuddle from our cat or dog can lift our spirits and give us a new lease on life. 

As it turns out, having a pet can actually improve your psychological and physical health. Here's how:

Pets help keep your heart healthy 
Studies have shown that pet owners have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, two factors critical to good heart health. Their levels were found to be low even when compared to people with similar lifestyles and negative health habits, such as smoking. There's also something called the "pet effect," which is when a person's blood pressure lowers when they pet a dog, Harvard Medical School explained. 

Pets reduce stress 
The heart benefits mentioned above may be attributed in part to the calming, soothing presence of pets. Psychology Today mentioned one study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine, which found that when someone pets a dog, blood chemistry changes and the stress-related hormones decrease in the body, and that study subjects displayed these effects after only 5 to 24 minutes of playing with a canine pal. As 4Knines noted, playing with pets can increase the production of the "happiness hormone" oxytocin in our bodies, as well as serotonin and dopamine. 

petsPets can reduce stress and lift our mood.

Pets lessen feelings of loneliness 
Social interaction and a feeling of companionship are essential to overall health and wellness. Brigham Young University psychology professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad links social connection with a 50 per cent reduction in the risk of early death, CBC News reported. 

"It's comparable to the risk of smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day," Holt-Lunstad said. "It exceeds the risk of alcohol consumption, it exceeds the risk of physical inactivity, obesity, and it exceeds the risk of air pollution."

Pets can provide that crucial sense of companionship and social support that is essential to a healthy life. And through training classes and trips to the dog park, owning a pet can help people expand their social circles. 

Pets keep you active 
One study of 2,000 adults found that dog owners who regularly took their dogs on walks had healthier physical activity levels and were less likely to be obese than people who did not own dogs, according to Reader's Digest Canada. Playing with your pet or taking them on walks is a great way to fit more exercise into your day, especially for people who are generally sedentary. 

Pets help you live in the moment 
Another component to healthy living is mindfulness, or the ability to exist fully in the present moment. This kind of thinking can help people deal with stress and anxiety in a more productive way and experience more joy in each day. With the care and attention pets require, they can help people improve their mindfulness abilities, according to the National Institutes of Health. 

"Dogs are very present. If someone is struggling with something, they know how to sit there and be loving," said NIH physician and researcher Dr. Ann Berger. "The foundations of mindfulness include attention, intention, compassion, and awareness. All of those things are things that animals bring to the table. People kind of have to learn it. Animals do this innately."

As the source explained, Berger works with individuals who have cancer and terminal illnesses, and teaches her patients about the power of mindfulness to manage pain and reduce stress. Pets can be particularly helpful in the development of mindfulness habits. 

The research above shows that pets are incredible sources of positivity in our lives, and have a significant impact on our health and well-being. So next time you play with your pooch or cuddle with your cat, be sure to thank them for making your life better!