Could owning a pet help you live longer? Possibly—if you get the right type of pet.

If you’ve ever shared your home with a pet, you know that an animal can bring love and companionship into your life. But could your furry friend also protect you against heart disease and help you live longer? Research suggests it might—although the protective effects depend on which type of animal you have and how you interact with your pet.

In May 2013, the American Heart Association (AHA) released a scientific statement associating pet ownership with reduced heart disease risk factors and greater longevity. Yet the research leans toward one type of pet in particular. “I think the data are pretty compelling that people with dogs have better health,” says Dr. Thomas Lee, a cardiologist, and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “There isn’t evidence that other animals, like cats, are associated with better outcomes.”

Pets and your health

How might owning a dog improve your health? There are a few possible explanations for the connection.

For one thing, healthy people are more likely to get a dog. “It may be simply that healthier people are the ones that have pets, not that having a pet actually leads to or causes reduction in cardiovascular risk,” Dr. Glenn Levine, professor at Baylor College of Medicine and member of the committee that wrote the AHA statement, said in a news release.

Also, having a dog keeps you more active. Walking your dog can help you meet the daily exercise requirements the government recommends. In one study of more than 5,200 Japanese adults, dog owners were 54% more likely to get the recommended physical activity than non-owners. That extra exercise may be why pet owners tend to have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Dogs also reduce stress and prevent loneliness. A pet can be a good companion—especially if you live alone. Having a friendly face and wagging tail to come home to is an antidote for loneliness. “For those of us who have dogs, like me, the possibility that a dog might help psychological health seems very credible,” Dr. Lee says. “With our dog at home, my wife and I don’t feel as alone.”

Pet ownership is no prescription for better health, and the AHA doesn’t recommend getting a dog solely for the purpose of protecting against heart disease. But if you already have a pet, you can take advantage of the health benefits.

Before making a commitment to becoming a dog owner, consider whether you’re healthy enough and have the financial means to care for a pet. Dogs need to be walked, fed, groomed, and taken to the vet. If you can’t handle the demands of a pet right now, ask to walk a friend’s dog a few days a week, or volunteer in an animal shelter. Anything that gets you out and keeps you physically active is good for your health, Dr. Lee says.

If you do get a dog, make the most of your time together. Get outside and walk, or play a game of fetch with a stick or Frisbee as often as you can. Your dog—and your heart—will be better for it.

Organizations that can help you adopt a pet

A few nonprofit groups can make it easier for you to adopt and care for a pet. Contact your local community elder services center, or try one of these organizations:

  • PAWS Seniors for Seniors
    PAWS will place you with a pet that matches your lifestyle, at a reduced adoption rate.
    425-787-2500, ext. 850
  • Pets for the Elderly Foundation
    This foundation will pay a portion of your adoption fee if you’re 60 or over and you adopt a pet from one of its participating shelters around the country.
  • Seniors for Pets
    If you’re having trouble affording a pet, this organization will help you pay for medical care.