January is the start of the new year, but it can also bring on the onset of winter blues and seasonal depression. However, recent studies show that pet owners can benefit from the mental health boosting power of their beloved four-legged family members, all year long.

Research shows what pet owners already know: your pets make you feel good. Dogs and cats in particular can help to alleviate stress, anxiety and depression, while easing feelings of loneliness. Pet owners also enjoy a boost in playfulness, exercise and even cardiovascular health.

Your companionship with your pet can help to lower your blood pressure and cause an uptick in your serotonin levels, causing you to feel happier and more at ease in your daily life.

Here are just a few ways that your pet supports your best mental health throughout the year, and especially this winter.

Lower Stress
Interacting with your cat or dog can help to reduce cortisol levels and increase serotonin levels, helping your brain and body to get the message that you really are okay. Dog owners also enjoy the stress reducing benefits of walking their pets, causing an uptick in oxytocin and endorphins. Cats have been shown to be especially calming during times of stress, and the act of stroking and touching your pet actually stimulates a sense of ease and relaxation to your nervous system.

Pets truly do seem to wipe out feelings of being lonely and alone, and the unconditional companionship they provide can be mood-boosting, supporting your mental health during even the most trying of times. Many pet owners tend to find one another at dog parks and on walking trails, forming social bonds that can help to further reduce feelings of isolating.

Ease Anxiety & Depression
Interacting with your pets causes an immediate reduction in stress hormones, and provides an instant dose of serotonin, the happiness hormone. Pet owners who suffer from anxiety and depression can find some relief through time spent walking, playing with and stroking their pet. Research also shows that the bond between you and your pet can provide much needed connection and emotional support during times of depression.

Increase Self-Esteem and Well-Being
Recent studies show that just owning a pet can lead to an increase in your overall self-esteem and well-being, including decreasing loneliness, keeping you physically fit, decreasing fears and increasing social activity. Not only do your pets help you to feel good, but they inspire you to go out into the world and share those good feelings with others.

Support Healthy Habits
Let’s face it, being a pet owner requires you to get out of bed in the morning and take necessary steps to care for your animal. If you’re a dog owner, it’s likely that your dog is requiring you to get outside and engage in physical activity to walk him. Cat owners need play, feeding, stroking and visits to the vet. Research shows that caring for a pet tends to remind us to care for ourselves, helping us to keep moving, stay in the present moment and take part in regular, healthy normal activities.