There’s a strange harmony that exists between humans and animals – but maybe it’s not really so strange or mysterious, considering the many mental health benefits of working with animals.

The benefits of animal-assisted therapy have long been well known, and there’s a growing body of evidence to support the effectiveness and therapeutic value of the human-animal interaction. For example, in an article on Psychology Today, Azmaira H. Maker Ph.D. writes that Equine Assisted Therapy can be used in a range of therapeutic settings, including helping people with:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • ADHD
  • conduct disorders
  • addiction
  • trauma
  • eating disorders
  • spectrum and health difficulties
  • dissociative disorders
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • dementia
  • other mental health difficulties

Maker’s article lists 16 benefits of participating in Equine Assisted Therapy, which include everything from anxiety reduction, depression and decreasing isolation, and mindfulness to communication, self-esteem, and creativity and spontaneity.

But the benefits that animals bring aren’t restricted to structured therapy situations like this – they also occur in everyday life. Scientific research has found that pets can have a positive impact on our mental health and wellbeing, and it’s clear that there are numerous benefits to human-animal interaction and the bonds formed with our animals.

Reduce Stress and Anxiety

One benefit of working with animals is reduced stress and anxiety. Interactions as simple as petting a dog can lower the stress hormone cortisol. Additionally, studies have shown a direct connection between interaction with animals and increased levels of the hormone oxytocin, which triggers happy feelings of love and protection.

Not only that, but reduced stress and anxiety are positive side effects of some of the many other benefits that come from working with animals, like physical activity.

Physical Activity

Interactions with animals may inherently motivate us to participate in physical activity – like taking your dog for a walk, or the exercise of riding a horse.

Physical health, in turn, promotes mental health, as it may lead to increased production of mood-boosting endorphins and lowered stress levels. According to Mental Health UK, people who regularly take part in physical activity have up to a 30 per cent lower risk of depression. Additionally, there’s a strong connection between exercise and stress relief.

For people affected by mental health problems, exercise can have a powerful, positive impact towards their quality of life.

Exercise can help mental health by:

  • improving mood
  • reducing anger
  • alleviating anxiety
  • slowing cognitive decline
  • improving concentration
  • improving sleep
  • feeling more motivated
  • reducing negative effects of stress
  • improving overall well-being through keeping a routine

Develop Self-Compassion

Working with an animal can foster a stronger sense of self-forgiveness, help you develop compassion for yourself and even build your confidence.

For example, working with horses can help increase your self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is defined as the belief in your own ability to execute certain actions in order to achieve a specific outcome, and it plays an important role in regulating your emotions. When self-efficacy is strong, people are better able to interpret potentially difficult expectations as manageable challenges, and they feel less stressful in these situations.

You can grow your self-efficacy by setting reasonable goals that you break into smaller goals and achieve one by one, or by going after small wins. These happen all the time when riding horses.

For example, improving your seat position, becoming more aware of how feeling frustrated may result in being tense, or learning to post a trot or do a counter-canter are all examples of small wins that happen through riding. These wins strengthen our belief in our abilities. Plus, with each little win, dopamine is released in our brains, further motivating us to work towards bigger goals.

Self-efficacy can also grow through teammate efficacy, that is, through viewing your horse as your partner and having belief and trust in them.

A 2015 study of Norwegian riders found that riders who viewed their relationship with their horse as harmonious and peaceful gave the riders both a sense of positive well-being and an increased perception of their own self-efficacy.

Learn To Deal With Failure

Nobody is perfect – so making mistakes, and being able to learn from them, is an essential part of positive mental health. When working with animals, we’re often provided with opportunities to learn from our mistakes through training and competitions.

Take this life lesson one equestrian learned, while at a clinic with Canadian dressage icon Cindy Ishoy: “without mistakes, we lose endless opportunities to gain valuable knowledge and learn.”

The most successful horse riders in the world aren’t faultless. Far from it, they’ve made countless mistakes, but they’re willing to try, fail, and ultimately learn from those mistakes.

Social Connection

There are significant mental health benefits to having strong, healthy relationships and social connections, including:

  • lower rates of anxiety and depression
  • higher self-esteem
  • greater empathy
  • more trusting and cooperative relationships
  • strengthened immune system
  • improved recovery from disease
  • longer lifespan

Conversely, loneliness can lead to health consequences such as disrupted sleep patterns, elevated blood pressure, and increased stress, and is a risk factor for antisocial behaviour, depression and suicide.

Many people struggle with social connectedness and feelings of isolation from others, and for those people, pets may just be able to help. Studies have found that pets enabled their owners to enhance both the amount and quality of social interactions. In these studies, having their pet present in various social situations helped people by:

providing confidence when venturing into new social situations
making it easier to be in the presence of other people
improving their openness during social interactions
enabling them to have difficult conversations with existing friends and family

Additionally, pets can help combat loneliness by providing companionship, emotional support and a listening set of ears.

Practicing Altruism

Helping others, including animals, also benefits mental health. When we care for and help animals, we’re engaged in altruistic behaviours. Not only can this lead to feelings of being useful and promote a sense of purpose, it’s also been shown to strengthen social relationships and benefit self-acceptance.


Mindfulness is achieved by focusing your awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting your feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations. When you’re dealing with numerous daily distractions and stressors, mindfulness can be hard – but animals can help us.

Animals seem to innately know the foundations of mindfulness: attention, intention, compassion, and awareness.

For example, horses are extremely sensitive animals that are highly receptive to human emotions. In Equine Assisted Therapy, participants must learn to be in the moment and maintain a calm, focused and fully engaged manner.

Similarly, therapy dogs are brought into hospitals or nursing homes to help reduce patients’ stress and anxiety. The dogs seem to know that their job is to sit, provide focused attention and be loving.

Mindfulness is sometimes taught to people with cancer and terminal illnesses, as a way to help decrease stress and manage pain. Animals can show us how to be fully present and help us to live in the moment.

Specific Mental Health Conditions

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Working with dogs may help kids with ADHD in the classroom. This study found that when kids with ADHD participated in group therapy sessions where they read aloud to dogs, they showed benefits including:

better social skills
fewer behavioural problems
more sharing, cooperation and volunteering


Interaction with animals can also be beneficial to children with autism. Another study found that when children spent time playing with guinea pigs in the classroom, they were calmer and had reduced anxiety.

The researchers of that study suggest that the animals helped build a bridge for social interactions, allowing the children to have better social interactions and be more engaged with others as a result of the time spent with animals.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

The human-animal bond is proven to be an effective, complementary treatment for people with PTSD, with animals such as service dogs having an incredibly positive impact for patients.

For example, in one survey, when people with PTSD were paired with a service dog, 84 per cent of them reported a significant reduction in symptoms and 40 per cent of them were able to decrease their medications.

As well, recent research suggests that first responders with PTSD who participated in equine-assisted therapy experience

  • significant benefits, including:
  • increased sense of peace
  • reduced anxiety
  • mindfulness
  • increased trust in the self and others

Time with animals is time well spent

In addition to the joy they bring, it’s clear that interaction with animals is good for us. For those who are lucky enough to work with animals or spend time with them every day, it may bring numerous mental health benefits. So if you need a reason to spend a little more time at the barn today, you can rest assured that it’s time well spent.