We love our pets. After all, our four-legged friends bring companionship, enjoyment and love into our homes, and they even have a way of perking us up when were feeling down. As the founder of Canine Assistants, a nonprofit organization that teaches service dogs to assist children and adults who have physical disabilities, epilepsy or other special needs, I see the benefits of animal companions every day. Service dogs help people regain independence, raise confidence levels and increase overall happiness. Even if you don’t need an assistance dog, having a pet can offer better physical and mental health and a higher quality of life.

Throughout 2013, I’ll be offering animal advice and tips. For this issue, I’d like to focus on a topic that’s near and dear to me: animals and health.

Pets are good for you

Having a pet can have real, measurable health effects. Several scientific studies, including one study on cats published in the Journal of Vascular and Interventional Neurology, have found that having a pet may reduce blood pressure and relieve stress, and, as a result, reduce the risk of heart disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, having a pet may also decrease your cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

But the benefits don’t end there: According to a study funded by the National Institutes of Health, owners who regularly walked their dogs got more exercise, which can have all sorts of positive health benefits, including a lower body weight. Older adults who have animals are more likely to have better physical health and a sense of purpose. And the young benefit, too, since children who are exposed to pets in their first year of life are less likely to develop asthma and allergies, and older children can learn responsibility in caring for pets.

Pets and their people

While further scientific studies about pet companionship and health are still needed, most pet owners intuitively know how and why pets are good for them. Many people turn to their dog or cat during difficult times, making owners feel less alone and giving them emotional support. Having a pet keeps older adults active, as caring for an animal requires them to move around, follow a schedule and focus on keeping themselves healthy enough to care for their pets, which are all important components of a happy life in later years. Animals also have a way of bringing laughter and joy into our lives—a key to staying happy and emotionally healthy at any age. Petting or snuggling an animal can have a calming effect, too, which helps reduce stress.

Pets can help their people live healthy, happy lives. Make the most of time with your pet, and be grateful for your animal companion and partner in health.

Jennifer Arnold is a New York Times best-selling author who lives with four dogs, Bob the cat, eight horses and numerous other animals on a farm in Milton, Ga. Visit canineassistants.org for more information or to make a donation.