Probably the most extensively researched AAT is dolphin-assisted therapy (DAT), which is most commonly used for children with autism or other developmental disabilities. DAT is practiced not only in the U.S.—primarily in Florida and Hawaii—but also in Mexico, Israel, Russia, Japan, China and the Bahamas, among other countries. Typically during DAT sessions children interact with a captive dolphin in the water while performing rudimentary manual tasks, such as placing rings on a peg. In many cases, the dolphin presumably serves as a “reinforcer” for appropriate child behaviors. Many DAT Web sites advance strong claims regarding this treatment’s effectiveness; one asserts that “this field of medicine has shown extraordinary results of the therapy [DAT] and breakthroughs in outcomes” as compared with conventional treatments, including medication and therapy (see www.dolphinassistedtherapy.com). Do the data support these assertions?
Emory University psychologist Lori Marino and one of us (Lilienfeld) have examined the research findings regarding DAT in two reviews, one published in 1998 and the second in 2007. We found the evidence lacking for DAT’s effectiveness. In many cases, researchers had shown only that children who received DAT displayed improvements on some psychological measures as compared with children who did not. Yet such results do not exclude the possibility that these changes would have occurred with the mere passage of time. In still other cases, researchers did not rule out the possibility that reported improvements were merely short-term mood effects rather than lasting changes in symptoms. Finally, no researcher adequately excluded the possibility that the observed effects could have been produced by any animal or, for that matter, by any highly pleasurable stimulus. The research literature for other AATs appears to be no more definitive.
Why should we care about whether AATs work? After all, if children seem to enjoy them and parents are willing to pay for them, why worry? There are at least three reasons. First, AATs can produce what economists term “opportunity costs”—the time, money and effort expended in seeking out ineffective treatments. Because of such costs, parents and children may forfeit the chance to seek out effective treatments. In the case of DAT, opportunity costs are far from trivial, because treatments frequently cost $3,000 to $5,000, not including the price of travel and lodging. Second, at least some AATs may be physically hazardous. For example, in DAT it is not legally required that dolphins be screened for infectious diseases. Moreover, there have been multiple reports of children injured by dolphins in DAT sessions. Third, some AATs result in largely unappreciated costs to the animals themselves. For example, removing dolphins from the wild for transfer to DAT facilities not only separates them from their families but also often results in the death of many dolphins within each pod.
So, to the bottom line: Are animals good for our psychological and physical health? Undoubtedly, many animals can be valued companions and provide social support; they can also make us feel better in the short term. It is possible that pets can be of particular help to people with depression or to children who have been severely neglected—for whom loneliness and lack of social support are often common problems. Still, further research will be needed to investigate this possibility. Moreover, whether animals—including dolphins—produce long-term changes in the core symptoms of other psychological conditions, such as autism, developmental disabilities or anxiety disorders, is another matter altogether. To this question, we must reserve the verdict sometimes delivered in Scottish courts: “unproven.”