The perks of pet ownership are a real thing. There’s companionship, for one. In fact, a lot of folks get a pet so they have someone to share their time with. But the benefits hardly stop there; there’s strong evidence to suggest pets actually improve mental health.

We spoke with some local experts about pet-owner relationships. Here’s what welcoming a pet into your home can do for you.

Do pets really make us happy?

Pet owners often claim their animal friends make their lives better. But is that just bias? Or do pets really improve their owners’ wellbeing?

Turns out, there’s long-standing evidence pets bring out the best in us.

Dr. Nancy Bureau of Left Hand Animal Hospital confirmed it. “Clinical studies have shown pet ownership lowers cortisol and increases serotonin,” she said. In other words, pets reduce stress hormones while increasing happiness hormones.

But it’s more than emotional changes. Dr. Buerau continued, explaining that pets can lower blood pressure, too. Even low-maintenance pets, like fish.

But why do pets affect us this way?

Keeping animals brightens our lives. But what causes this profound effect? Dr. Kristina Ingram of Pella Corner Animal Clinic offered a surprising answer.

Pets make humans happy because they helped us survive. “[Dogs] almost evolved alongside us,” she explained. “They would help us kill animals for food, and they’d get the scraps. They’ve been in our lives forever.”

Dr. Ingram wasn’t exaggerating. European monarchs, Romans and Egyptians revered their animal companions. And the oldest domesticated dog skull is about 32,000 years old. That’s around as long as humans have lived in complex social groups.

How can we use pet-owner bonds?

We humans would be silly if we didn’t take advantage of our bond with animals. Dr. Bureau explained dogs help us particularly well.

Registered service dogs can recognize stress, seizures and high blood sugar levels. They soothe our symptoms and protect us from self-harm. Some dogs even work with severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Even if a dog hasn’t received intense training, it can still act as an emotional support animal.

The Dog Ranch in Berthoud provides public boarding and training services. But The Ranch’s nonprofit, Rescues Rescuing Veterans, trains emotional support animals for veterans with PTSD, depression, anxiety and more.

Ashely Dinger, The Ranch’s owner, shared her first-hand success with this project. “[The dogs] get people outside, help [owners] cope with their personal problems, and even get them out of bed in the morning.”

Wait, are dogs the only support animal?

Not at all! Though dogs are the most common, any type of animal can play a support role.

Dr. Ingram shared a delightful story about an iguana owner who liked to have the lizard sleep in her bed. “As long as the animal brings their owner comfort,” she said, “[the species] does not matter.”

For example, The Dog Ranch’s Rescue Farm facility allows the public to interact with rescued farm animals. “People who interact with [the farm animals] really feel good afterward,” Dinger said. “Even basic grooming brings people joy.”

Is pet ownership for everyone?

Though it’s tempting to look at pets as a blanket fix, Dr. Ingram reminded us that pets are a commitment, regardless of how much good they do.

“Like everyone who wants to be a pet owner, you should know it’s a responsibility you’re taking on,” she said firmly. “You’re responsible for the pet’s life and wellbeing.”

It’s wise to consider emotional, physical and financial capability before investing in a pet. In the worst cases, pet care could make the owner’s struggles worse.

Of course, keeping a pet is a profoundly personal decision. It changes on a case-by-case basis. As Dinger pointed out, “Sometimes people experiencing depression think they can’t handle an animal, but the reality is an animal might help.”

Dr. Ingram agreed with Dinger’s sentiment. “For older folks, having a pet can be so important. A lot of the time they’ll say, ‘I’m 75 years old, I don’t need an animal in the house.’ But regardless of age, a pet could help them function for a time.”

The bottom line—think honestly before taking on the responsibility of a pet.

Where does that leave us?

There’s a sea of evidence proving pets help our well-being. Humanity has evolved with animals since the beginning. And people really do benefit from their pets.

We can (and should) take advantage of that.

Dogs are skilled at emotional health support. But any animal can help its owner.

Though pet ownership isn’t for everyone, it’s an excellent option for most folks. This is especially the case for folks who might otherwise not receive unconditional friendship.

Dr. Ingram reflected on companionship as we wrapped up our discussion. “Love from an animal is so special. It’s a type of unconditional compassion you can’t get anywhere else.”

As any pet owner can tell you, that’s absolutely true.