If you’ve ever cared for a pet — a dog, an iguana, a parakeet, or something else — then you surely know how the bond you built with them changed you. Always being there to feed them, keeping them healthy, and looking for some kind of mutual solace in each other’s company. It turns out that these connections, which surely build empathy toward our pets, also build empathy and other social skills in young adults.

There are many reasons why pets are good for our health. Among them, it gives people a reason to seek out other pet owners, acting as a catalyst for social involvement. According to one study, having a dog increased a person’s likeliness to speak with strangers. In fact, the authors found that when someone was alone, they only spoke to about three strangers, compared to when they were with a dog, and spoke to about 65 strangers in the same amount of time. But while this may be part of the reason young adults are more sociable, the researchers involved with the current study believe that it’s more about the quality of the pet-owner relationship.

“Our findings suggest that it may not be whether an animal is present in an individual’s life that is most significant but rather the quality of that relationship,” said Dr. Megan Mueller, a developmental psychologist and research assistant professor at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, in a press release. “The young adults in the study who had strong attachment to pets reported feeling more connected to their communities and relationships.”

The study looked at over 500 young adults, mainly women, ages 18 to 26, and asked them about their attitudes and feelings toward animals. They were also asked to answer questions that assessed for positive aspects of youth development, like whether or not they were competent, caring, confident, and had character, as well as whether they showed signs of depression.

Showing love to other animals promotes similar feelings toward other people. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Those who said that they were more attached to a particular animal were most likely to also exhibit more empathy and confidence, while also reporting that they felt more connected to other people. Beyond that, the more a participant cared for an animal, the more likely they were to contribute to certain activities, such as community service and helping friends and family — these were times when they demonstrated leadership, the researchers said.

Though the results show some correlation with owning a pet and socializing with others, Mueller notes that they weren’t able to find a causal link, “but it is a promising starting point to better understanding the role of animals in our lives, especially when we are young,” she said in the release. She also said that they’ll be better able to understand the link once they conduct studies looking at how the animal-human relationship grows over time.

Besides social capability, having a pet has been associated with a range of other health benefits. Most notably, petting a dog can reduce stress in both the dog and the human. As the hormone oxytocin — which is associated with emotional bonding — is released, blood pressure drops in both humans and dogs. Other hormones are released when playing with animals, including dopamine and serotonin, both of which increase feelings of happiness. Having a pet has also been linked to better physical fitness — walking dogs is physical activity — fewer allergies, and even better diabetes control.

Source: Mueller M. Is Human-Animal Interaction (HAI) Linked to Positive Youth Development? Initial Answers. Applied Developmental Science. 2014.