Dolphin-Assisted Therapy Discussed in The Lancet

Kimmela Center executive director Dr. Lori Marino is quoted extensively in an article about animal-assisted therapies by Adrian Burton in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet Neurology.

The article, entitled “Dolphins, dogs, and robot seals for the treatment of neurological disease” asks:

“A growing body of evidence suggests that animal-assisted therapies and activities involving all kinds of real and even robotic animals can have beneficial effects in people with neurological disease or mental illness. But what is the quality of that evidence, and do these interventions really provide any health benefits?”

Burton notes that while there are numerous reports of animal-assisted activities and therapies being beneficial to people with neurological or mental disorders, this growing field lacks “high-quality evidence regarding the value of such therapies.”

Dolphin-assisted therapy is an especially lucrative activity that’s offered by facilities all over the world, making claims, among others,  that swimming and interacting with dolphins increases attention span, motivation, motor function, and language skills in severely disabled children, and provides similar therapeutic benefits for those with autism, epilepsy, Angelman’s syndrome, dyslexia, or Tourette’s syndrome.

DATBut how good is the science behind these claims? Dr. Marino says most of it is of very low quality:

“Many reports in the literature are observational or, when prospective, involve very small numbers of patients or lack critical control conditions. As a result, most suffer from problems with construct validity—i.e., the inability to identify which components of the study (being in a pool, human interactions, new settings, etc.) are causally related to any observed short-term changes.

“… Most studies are plagued by major threats to construct validity such as placebo effects, novelty effects, demand characteristics, experimenter expectancy effects, [and] informant bias,” she says. “If it cannot be determined that the dolphin is an important therapeutic ingredient then there is no basis for most of the claims made by the lucrative industry that has grown up around dolphin-assisted therapy.”

Read full story: Kimmela Center