Thanks to the faltering economy, many Americans are opting not to take on the expense of pet ownership — but could they actually be doing themselves more harm than good?

Although we collectively own 70 million dogs and 74 million cats, those numbers have dropped rather precipitously in the past six years, likely because of the monetary cost associated with keeping critters fed and healthy.

But many scientific studies show pet ownership has health benefits — it can lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol and stress, and even cut the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

So how does that affect your wallet? Healthier people spend less money on medical care. High blood pressure, for example, can increase your health care costs by more than $700 a year, and one study estimates the total lifetime cost of severe heart disease, including both medical costs and lost income, can be a staggering $1 million.

Obviously, pets aren’t a panacea — for some people, just the stress of caring for them could outweigh the potential health benefits. But for many of the rest of us, the unconditional love of our pets makes them worth their weight in gold.

[Time]