Pets can provide companionship, safety, and a good excuse to exercise. But when it comes to providing pure happiness, dogs win out.

According to the recently-released 2018 General Social Survey, “dog owners are about twice as likely as cat owners to say they’re very happy, with people owning both falling somewhere in between.”

Interestingly, the survey also found little difference in happiness between older and younger pet owners. According to another recent study, however, older pet owners benefit in a myriad of other ways.

Older pet owners are healthier

A national poll of 2,051 adults aged 50 to 80 conducted by University of Michigan School of Medicine found that having a pet helps older adults mentally, physically and socially. Pet owners reported reduced stress, increased social connections, and a greater sense of purpose.

“Pets give you somebody to wake up for, someone whose needs you have to attend to. People enjoy being needed and having something to care for,” explains Cathleen Connell, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health who has studied the role of companion animals in older adults’ lives.

In addition, more than 70% of the respondents reported that “their pet helps them cope with physical or emotional symptoms, and 46% said their pets help take their mind off of pain.”

“Animals might provide distraction from discomfort or maybe having a pet sit with you when you are uncomfortable can help,” says Connell.

Another study done in 2017 by Central Michigan University found that “older adult pet owners have overall better health with regard to weight, health conditions, and fewer medications.”

How to decide if you can handle a dog

But while dogs might offer extra benefits, as any dog owner knows, they’re also a lot of work–especially as you age.

Some dogs need to be extremely active. Others require a lot of grooming, which can be expensive. (Click here for a list of the top dog breeds for older owners).

Here are some other questions to consider:

The cost of food and veterinarian bills. A smaller pet comes with a lower cost of feeding.

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Your regular travel plans. Do you spend every other weekend visiting the grandkids in the next state? Do you take a monthlong trip every winter? Cats, gerbils, hamsters are easier to find someone to care for them.

The lifespan of the animal. There is nothing sadder than when a pet outlives its owner and ends up dumped at a shelter. One way around this: Adopt an older animal.

What to do if you can’t own a pet

Of course, there are downsides to owning a pet: Fall risks, allergies, restricted socializing if you have to get home to deal with an animal. If you don’t think you can adopt a pet for whatever reason, you can still have animals in your life by volunteering at your local shelter or pet-sit for friends.

Connell says, “Caring for another being is a really powerful force in life. With adults living longer lives these days, there is no reason why they can’t meet some of that need by looking after a pet. Not everyone wants it but for those that it’s right for, it can be very helpful. There are profound mental health benefits for people for whom that bond is close.”

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