While it may seem obvious to most pet owners, it’s still interesting to ponder why humans are drawn to other animals – so much so that we open our homes and hearts to them much like we do our own children.

While we may have anecdotal and sometimes sentimental reasons for why we love pets, is there any science behind our fascination with our furry companions?

Domestication of Animals

The domestication of animals began 17,000-20,000 years ago (some research suggests even longer). Prior to this, man was fascinated with other species. Whether we feared them or made them the subject of prehistoric cave art, animals have shaped us just as we have shaped them.

Even in the wild, interspecies communication exists (that basic awareness of the presence of other animals) and is critical to the survival of both predator and prey. So it’s no surprise that as we’ve domesticated dogs, cats, horses, and other animals that our brains also began to notice and respond to living beings. This is called biophilia – our ability to recognize and respond to life over inanimate objects.

Likely due to the specific characteristics of certain animals, the concept of pets emerged. Animals that offered us some benefit became integrated into our communities. In many cases, they provided important services like protection, rodent control, hunting assistance, and, eventually, companionship.

The Feel-Good Connection

In 2012, a study from biologist Linda Handlin revealed those with companion pets (in this case, dogs) experienced higher levels of oxytocin (the feel-good hormone) and lower levels of cortisol, which is associated with stress.

Among other studies, pet ownership has proven beneficial to our health in several ways, including increased longevity following a heart attack, lower blood pressure, and increased physical activity – particularly in older adults.

One of the primary factors for this has to do with our need for companionship. As social animals, humans thrive in relation to a community, family, and other loved ones. Because a pet responds to this dynamic, we share a mutually beneficial sense of safety, comfort, and companionship.

Beyond the Cute Factor

For those who adore a nontraditional pet, such as a snake, lizard, bird, or other exotic, don’t feel excluded. In 2011, one researcher found that the oldest part of our brain, the amygdala, “lit up” upon seeing images of animals – no matter what the species. This makes sense, as this is also the part of the brain that determines emotions and the fight-or-flight response.

These emotional responses are then transferred to other parts of the brain. The fight-or-flight reaction might be replaced with different associations to animals now viewed as pets rather than threats – like snakes and spiders, for example.

Why We Love Pets

From health benefits to neuroscience and emotional connection to protection, the reasons we love pets are many and varied. For our companion animals, this bond has proven to be every bit as advantageous. We provide shelter, food, medical care, and a plethora of other perks for the animals with whom we share our lives.

As researchers continue to explore the human-animal bond, we continue to learn even more about ourselves and these amazing species we love so much.