The American Pet Owners Survey finds that 68 percent of households in the United States have pets as part of their families. Furthermore, the Scientific American states that the relationship between humans and animals began 2.6 million years ago. However, it wasn’t until just several thousand years ago when the animals we know today were domesticated. In pre-modern history, animals weren’t just a source of food, they were living, breathing tools used by humans. Animals, such as cows, sheep, and horses, provided milk, labor (pulling vehicles and carrying heavy loads), and wool for clothing. Today, the function of pets is drastically different than it was during ancient times.

Many people adopt animals for the companionship, comfort and amusement they bring to the home. However, could the effect of our four-legged, scaly, or feathery pals be deeper than fondness and entertainment? Pet therapy, also known as animal-assisted therapy, is a field in medicine that employs dogs, cats and other animals to help people recover from or cope with various health problems, including heart disease, cancer, and mental illness. According to Mayo Clinic, pet therapy is effective among nervous children at the dentist, cancer patients, people living in long-term care facilities, and people with heart disease, dementia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or anxiety. Additionally, pet therapy is used in university settings for stressed students.

According to the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), the simple act of petting an animal has an instant calming effect, promoting the release of serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin – otherwise known as “feel-good” chemicals. In turn, stress, anxiety and general feelings of uneasiness are reduced. Animal-assisted therapy is also shown to promote mental stimulation and help patients with head injuries or Alzheimer’s disease recall memories and sequence events.

With all this positive feedback from the medical sphere, how do pets benefit people at home? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists several benefits of keeping an animal in the home, including decreased blood pressure, fewer feelings of loneliness and decreased isolation by socializing with other pet owners.

Mental Health America reports that 98 percent of pet owners consider their animals part of the family; 74 percent said that having a pet improved their mental health; and 75 percent reported that a pet improved a friend or family member’s mental health. How does this take place?

Pets help people establish a routine and foster a sense of security. In particular, a dog’s need for daily play and exercise is beneficial in keeping depressed people up and active. Exercise raises endorphins in the brain, which supports elevated mood. A consistent schedule relating to pet care helps people feel more regulated in their day and less stressed. Additionally, the ability to properly care for a pet builds self-esteem. For a mild to moderately depressed person, taking care of not only themselves, but another living being, is a sizeable accomplishment. The unwavering companionship and love that dogs and other animals offer may, in some instances, be the motivation to get out of bed in the morning. No matter how a person feels, their animal will always need to be fed, walked, petted, played with or groomed. The act of physically getting up and accomplishing these tasks helps a person be present and move through their mental trials.

Some dogs are trained as service animals to aid people with anxiety, PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI). While therapy animals visit hospitals, schools and nursing homes to help people, service dogs are trained to the specific needs of the individual they’re paired with. Psychiatric service dogs learn to recognize the early signs of panic attack in their owner and do something to distract the person’s attention, such as pawing at their leg. In a classroom or meeting, the dog’s need for attention allows the person to excuse themselves before the onset of an episode. Matt Masingill, speaking to The Dog People, details how his service dog woke him from PTSD-induced nightmares, and helped him get his sleep on track and get off medication.

For those who suffer claustrophobia or anxiety related to being crowded by others, service dogs can be trained to place themselves between their handler and others to increase personal space and secure boundaries. Additionally, some dogs use their body weight in a person’s lap or on their abdomen to calm them by means of deep pressure therapy.

Adopting an animal does not replace the treatment a person will receive from a human professional. Animals are a huge responsibility and require time, energy and money to ensure they are healthy and safe. Before getting a pet, a person must be ready to make the commitment – especially financially – that accompanies animal ownership. All things considered, an animal is a wonderful addition to the household and may supplement traditional mental health treatment, whether it’s a trained service dog or a mischievous kitten.

Animals give unconditional love, comic relief and general feelings of happiness. A trip to the local shelter that results in adoption could be the bright spot that anyone, mentally ill or not, needs in life. We all need a companion, someone to play with and someone to talk to. Sometimes our closest allies are those of a completely different species.