People (and science) will tell you there’s something special about the parent-child bond, which is a connection like no other. From the time your children are born, you’d do anything to provide them with what they need: food, shelter, clothing, and time—but mostly you. That’s where the phrase unconditional love comes in.

Millions more Americans would nod in approval, knowing how it feels to be a pet parent to their favorite four-legged friend. Pet owners will tell you they’ve always known that their pets make their lives better—but science is now better understanding why they help not only our emotional health but also our physical well-being.

The Pick-Me-Up of Pets

For many people, life can be hard—especially when it comes to coping with serious ailments and aging. And more than ever, animals are coming to the rescue. Organizations like Pet Partners visit places where people need comfort the most, including nursing homes and hospitals, and elicit smiles simply by bringing a friendly furry face with them. Pet Partners’ therapy animals—which are primarily dogs and cats, but can be rabbits or even mini horses or llamas—improve the well-being of those they visit, making them happier and more willing to cope with treatment, recovery, and pain.

Unfortunately, depression is also a critical problem today—over seventeen million Americans are affected by it, including 13 percent of teens. And the health effects can be powerful. A recent study, for example, indicates that prolonged isolation has the same effects on a person as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.

With a pet, you never feel alone, and that can play a huge role in helping to battle depression. One prominent survey showed that almost three-quarters of pet owners feel that their mental health improved because of their pets. For families, getting a new pet is like welcoming a new member, with everyone sharing responsibility—and that sense of purpose also helps improve self-esteem.

Pets are also good at bringing people together; they’re like furry icebreakers. Even in your own neighborhood, you’ll notice that people who have dogs tend to know each other: not only do they see each other frequently, but they share a common interest in their canine companions. And if you’re the new kid on the block, you can make friends easier. Professional counselors have even started bringing their dogs into therapy sessions to help calm their patients and make them feel more comfortable opening up.

Special Friends for Special Needs

Pets can be a huge benefit for any child’s self-esteem, providing constant companionship without judgment and a calming effect. This can be even more impactful for those with special needs, especially children, who often have difficulty coping with what others might take for granted.

Kids with ADHD, for example, find it difficult to focus. Since pets require attention and a schedule, caring for them (which includes keeping a schedule) can be an invaluable tool. Also, pets provide an outlet for the hyperactivity that comes with the condition.

Likewise, children on the autism spectrum can benefit from having a pet. Because they often flinch at touch or avoid eye contact, simply petting their animals can help them get more comfortable with tactile sensation. In addition, having a pet has been shown to help autistic kids with socialization. Service dogs are also a possibility for children and adults with autism, thanks to them being trained to recognize and diffuse anxiety and potential meltdowns.

The Heart of the Matter

People say that their pets steal their hearts, but their four-legged friends can actually help their health as well. According to the CDC, research shows that the human-animal bond can result in a host of heart-healthy benefits for people. For example, interactions with dogs have been shown to increase oxytocin in both parties, which helps reduce stress and lower blood pressure, and having a dog has been associated with lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Likewise, a cat’s purring has been linked to lower stress and blood pressure levels.

However, that’s not the only way that animals improve our health. If you’re a dog owner, then you know that they require daily walks, and this makes it easy to get the 150 minutes of weekly exercise recommended by the American Heart Association for better health. As an added bonus, walking your pooch can help strengthen your muscles and bones, and getting outside helps you get more vitamin D naturally. Horses bring you outdoors even more, and the riding posture is great for your core muscles. And felines, even if they don’t need as much owner-dependent exercise, can help with activity in a different way: they’re the inspiration for a popular form of yoga stretching called cat stretching.

Common household pets can also save your life in a health crisis. Evidence has shown that it’s possible for canines to sense health emergencies in their owners, including seizures, blood sugar dropping in type 1 diabetics, oncoming heart attacks, and even cancer. Cats are known to be able to sense such critical changes in human physiology as well.

But you may ask “What good does this do me if I have pet allergies?” There’s good news on that front, too. Research indicates that if you are exposed to animals at an early age, it can actually prevent allergies from developing. That’s right: pets can not only help us take care of our health problems but also problems that they cause—such a pet thing to do.

As we each make our path through life, health challenges often arise: physical ailments, serious illnesses, and depression being chief among them. It’s no wonder, then, that two-thirds of American households have pets in their homes—the mental, emotional, and physical health benefits are priceless. Perhaps most important, our amazing four-legged friends always bring us back to the simplest of truths in this complicated world: that there’s no cure like unconditional love.