What’s more healthful than a multivitamin and as beneficial as exercise?

Fido. Or Cooper. Or Bella. Or any other fur baby.

Medical research shows that owning a dog is one of the best prescriptions for reducing your health risk.

And dog-owning doctors agree.

“People who live alone but have a dog have a 33 percent reduced risk of death and an 11 percent reduced rate of cardiovascular disease,” according to Thomas Boyden, MD, MS, Spectrum Health program director of preventive cardiology.

Dr. Boyden owns Juju B, a miniature pinscher-Chihuahua mix.

He knows from personal experience that dog ownership can also reduce stress and improve your mood.

“Getting a pet actually works faster than psychiatric drugs,” said psychologist Jared Skillings, PhD, ABPP. “The health benefits of playing with a pet begin in just five to 25 minutes, while psychotropic drugs may take weeks to become effective.”

Dr. Skillings’ household includes two cats and three dogs.

Have you hugged a dog today?

Research about the benefits of pet ownership comes from the American Heart Association, Purdue University, the Journal of Psychotropic Medicine and others.

In general, the studies show that owning a dog may:

  • Fight heart disease. Owning a dog has a positive impact on blood pressure, which is one of the main factors in heart attack and stroke, according to Dr. Boyden. The American Heart Association reports a link between pet ownership and lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Studies also show you’ll be more likely to survive a heart attack if you have a dog.
  • Relieve stress. “Being around pets, and dogs in particular, actually changes your body at a hormonal level,” Dr. Skillings said. Of course, it’s not a cure-all. “Getting a dog won’t cure depression or clinical anxiety, but it certainly can help.”
  • Reduce loneliness. Dogs provide unconditional love. They’re caring, excited to see you and glad to be by your side. Need to talk? “Dogs are good listeners and they’re not going to argue with you,” Dr. Skillings said.
  • Improve sociability. There’s also the added benefit of the camaraderie among dog owners. “Having a dog can connect people to other pet owners, which can reduce isolation, too,” Dr. Skillings said.
  • Inspire exercise. A study published in the journal BMC Public Health said the average dog owner walks 22 minutes more per day than those who don’t own a dog.  Daily walks have lots of added benefits, from controlling chronic conditions to burning weight and improving moods.
  • Add purpose. Having a dog or any other pet can give you a reason to get going in the morning. Size doesn’t matter. In fact, cats, horses and birds can all have a similar effect. Even tiny pets—hamsters, mice, fish, insects—can imbue you with a sense of purpose. In one study, elderly people were asked to care for a cage of five crickets. After eight weeks, the people who had the crickets in their homes were less depressed and had better cognitive function than those in the control group.

The bottom line? If you’re thinking about a pet—and you’re ready to take on the expense and the responsibility—go for it.

“I actually tell people who live alone, are sedentary, or might seem depressed, to consider a dog if they can afford it,” Dr. Boyden said. “There’s definitely good observational data to support all kinds of benefits.”