Like many animals, humans live in packs in which we make connections with the other members. But those packs don't have to be made up of just fellow humans. Pets can be a vital part of them.

"Research shows that our desire to connect with our pets can be a valuable asset for those struggling with physical and emotional pain; mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety; and environmental factors, such as loneliness," said Jennifer Wickham, a Mayo Clinic Health System counselor.

The potential benefits of pet ownership and pet therapy were first explored in research in the 1980s. This research found that the companionship of pets may be important in fostering positive mental health and well-being in people.

In July 2011, the American Psychological Association reported on a study that found pets serve as an important social and emotional support for "everyday people" and for those with "significant health challenges." This study examined the outcomes of those individuals who owned a pet and those who did not. The results show that "pet owners fared better in terms of well-being outcomes."

"Though not a replacement for social interaction with people, pets do provide social support and stress reduction," added Wickham. "We know, through medical research, that increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol slows immune response to injury sites. When this occurs, the healing process can be delayed, causing increased recovery times. Developing strategies for reducing stress in everyday life and in health crisis situations has been a recent focus for all."

Many hospitals and clinics now have policies allowing pets to be present to provide emotional support and companionship to ease the stress of illness and pain.

"So, if you own a pet, take good care of them, because they take care of you," Wickham said. "Their unconditional love for us bestows many wellness benefits."