Whoever coined the saying "good friends are hard to find" probably didn't have a pet. Unlike your gossipy co-workers, pets are loyal, nonjudgmental and full of unconditional love. Who could ask for anything more?
Indeed, when a group of children was asked to list 10 of their closest relationships and then rank them according to who they would most likely turn to in a time of need, pets often scored higher than the children's human relationships [source: McNicholas]. It's not just children who value their pets' company. A recent survey conducted by the American Veterinary Medical Association found that more than half of respondents consider their pets as companions [source: Springer]. And if you've ever found yourself on the couch confiding all of your private problems into Fido's soulful eyes, you're not alone. A study on the bonds between people and their animals revealed that 97 percent of pet owners talk to their pets [source: Springer].
Not only can pets be an integral member of a person's social network, but they can help extend that network in other ways as well. Owning a dog, for instance, forces a person to go on walks or to the dog park, where he or she is more likely to be approached by other people and perhaps strike up a conversation about the cute little friend. Wheelchair patients with companion dogs receive both more attention and better quality attention from acquaintances and strangers alike. Researchers sometimes call this the magnet effect, and it works especially well for those who have a difficult time meeting people [source: NIH].
The companionship pets offer can be especially beneficial to the elderly or the infirm, who often have trouble maintaining lasting friendships. The presence of a pet provides a constant source of healthy social stimulation that can be hard to find in even a spouse or a caretaker [source: NIH]. In such instances, animals have proven effective antidotes to depression. In one case, AIDS patients who owned pets were much less likely to succumb to depression than those without pets [source: Davis]. Even in situations where all other factors are the same, the presence of an animal seems to provide a boost: A group of patients suffering from depression who participated in daily water exercises with dolphins saw significant improvements over a group who performed the same exercises without dolphins [source: Harvard].
So whether you go with Flipper or Fido, a pet may be just what the doctor ordered.