If you’ve ever owned a pet, you already know how much fun and affection they can bring.

But did you know that pets also come with some pretty powerful mental and physical health benefits? Dogs in particular can reduce stress, anxiety and depression. Your dog can ease loneliness, encourage exercise and playfulness, and even improve your cardiovascular health. Caring for a dog can help children grow up more secure and active or provide valuable companionship for older adults. Perhaps most importantly, though, a dog can add real joy and unconditional love to your life.

How can dogs help you cope with depression, anxiety, and stress?

More than any other animal, dogs have evolved to become acutely attuned to humans and our behavior and emotions. While dogs are able to understand many of the words we use, they’re even better at interpreting our tone of voice, body language, and gestures. And like any good human friend, a loyal dog will look into your eyes to gauge your emotional state and try to understand what you’re thinking and feeling (and to work out when the next walk or treat might be coming, of course).

While most dog owners are clear about the immediate joys that come with sharing their lives with canine companions, many remain unaware of the physical and mental health benefits that can also accompany the pleasure of playing with or snuggling up to a furry friend. It’s only recently that studies have begun to scientifically explore the benefits of the human-animal bond. The American Heart Association has linked the ownership of pets, especially dogs, with a reduced risk for heart disease and greater longevity. Studies have also found that:

• Dog owners are less likely to suffer from depression than those without pets.

• People with dogs have lower blood pressure in stressful situations than those without pets. One study even found that when people with borderline hypertension adopted dogs from a shelter, their blood pressure declined significantly within five months.

• Playing with a dog or cat can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax.

• Pet owners have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels (indicators of heart disease) than those without pets.

• Heart attack patients with dogs survive longer than those without.

• Pet owners over age 65 make 30 percent fewer visits to their doctors than those without pets.

One of the reasons for these therapeutic effects is that dogs fulfill the basic human need to touch. Even hardened criminals in prison have shown long-term changes in their behavior after interacting with dogs, many of them experiencing mutual affection for the first time. Stroking, hugging, or otherwise touching a loving animal can rapidly calm and soothe us when we’re stressed or anxious. The companionship of a pet can also ease loneliness, and most dogs are a great stimulus for healthy exercise, which can substantially boost your mood and ease depression.

How dogs can help you make healthy lifestyle changes?

Adopting healthy lifestyle changes plays an important role in easing symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress, bipolar disorder, and PTSD.

Caring for a dog can help you make healthy lifestyle changes by:

• Increasing exercise. Taking a dog for a walk, hike or run are fun and rewarding ways to fit healthy daily exercise into your schedule. Studies have shown that dog owners are far more likely to meet their daily exercise requirements—and exercising every day is great for the animal as well. It will deepen the connection between you, eradicate most behavior problems in dogs, and keep your pet fit and healthy.

• Providing companionship. Companionship can help prevent illness and even add years to your life, while isolation and loneliness can trigger symptoms of depression. Caring for a living animal can help make you feel needed and wanted, and take the focus away from your problems, especially if you live alone. Most dog and cat owners talk to their pets, some even use them to work through their troubles. And nothing beats loneliness like coming home to a wagging tail and wet kisses.

• Helping you meet new people. Dogs can be a great social lubricant for their owners, helping you start and maintain new friendships. Dog owners frequently stop and talk to each other on walks, hikes, or in a dog park. Dog owners also meet new people in pet stores, clubs, and training classes.

• Reducing anxiety. The companionship of a dog can offer comfort, help ease anxiety, and build self-confidence for people anxious about going out into the world. Because dogs live in the moment—they don’t worry about what happened yesterday or what might happen tomorrow—they can help you become more mindful and appreciate the joy of the present.

• Adding structure and routine to your day. Dogs require a regular feeding and exercise schedule. Having a consistent routine keeps a dog balanced and calm—and it can work for you, too. No matter your mood—depressed, anxious, or stressed—one plaintive look from your dog and you’ll have to get out of bed to feed, exercise, and care for your pet.

• Providing sensory stress relief. Touch and movement are two healthy ways to quickly manage stress. Stroking a dog lowers blood pressure and can help you quickly feel calmer and less stressed.