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Story highlights

Studies show people with dogs exercise more on average than those without

Pets also reduce stress and boost your self-esteem

Having a pet early in life may protect you from allergies, research shows

Editor’s Note: Dr. Townshend is a veterinarian with Wellness Natural Pet Food and contributing author for “Canine Sports Medicine.” He established the Eastern Shore Animal Hospital in his hometown of Chestertown, Maryland.

(CNN) —  

February 20 is Love Your Pet Day! The benefits of having a pet extend well beyond companionship, and sometimes our furry friends don’t receive the credit that’s due.

Pets are a shoulder to cry on, an alarm clock, an exercise partner, and a true member of the family. There is over 25 years’ worth of research that shows living with pets provides a bounty of health benefits. These are just five:

1. You move more

We live in an on-the-go society, which can leave little time for exercise and physical activity. But several studies have shown dog owners get more exercise than people who do not have a dog.

Research funded by the National Institutes of Health revealed that more than 2,000 adults who owned and walked their dogs regularly were in better shape, and were less likely to be become obese, than those who did not walk a dog.

For bigger dogs with more energy, try rollerblading, biking or skateboarding to the get the blood pumping and the body moving.

2. Stress reduction & better self-esteem

One of the greatest benefits pets provide is a 24/7 emotional support system.

Pets innately know when we need them most, which gives us a feeling of belonging and a self-esteem boost. Pets are even being used to help our nation’s servicemen overcome post-traumatic stress disorder.

One study in the American Journal of Cardiology found that pet owners had hearts that adapted better to stressful situations than non-pet owners. This is likely the rationale behind the annual Take Your Dog to Work Day.

3. A happy heart

Your heart loves your pet in more ways than one. Some of the largest and most well-designed studies in this field suggest that cats and dogs can help improve our heart health.

The American Heart Association cites a number of studies that found pet ownership may help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Some data even indicates that pets help lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and that owners with heart issues are more likely to survive heart attacks.

4. Protection against allergies

Studies, like this one published in JAMA in 2002, have shown that being exposed to pet dander early on in life can help prevent future allergies. Specifically, children under the age of 1 who had two or more dogs or cats as family pets saw a reduction in allergy development by the time they were 6 or 7.

Other studies have shown similar results, finding that early cat exposure reduced the development of allergies later in life.

5. Become a social butterfly

Taking your dog to the park or around the block for a walk may be benefiting you more than you’re aware. Research indicates that walking with a dog leads to more conversations with neighbors, other dog owners, etc. and helps you stay socially connected.

A 2014 study in the journal Applied Developmental Science found that young adults with a strong attachment to cats and dogs also reported feeling more connected to their relationships and communities. And studies have shown those that have a more fulfilled and busy social life live longer, happier lives.