Frolicking with dolphins could ease mild to moderate depression, at least temporarily, new research shows.

The researchers aren’t suggesting that anyone quit therapy or ditch antidepressants over their findings. Depression is a serious illness that deserves skilled care.

The study was led by Christian Antonioli, a PhD candidate in psychiatry at England’s University of Leicester Medical School. The findings appear in theBritish Medical Journal.

Depression and Dolphins

The study included 30 people with mild to moderate depression. They spent two weeks at the Roatan Institute for Marine Sciences in Honduras.

The researchers assigned one group of patients to snorkel with dolphins for an hour daily. A trainer directed half of each session; patients played freely with the dolphins during the other time.

For comparison, a second group of patients spent a similar amount of time in the water, without dolphins. They got an equal amount of attention from human staff, too.

Less Depression Reported

Before and after the study, patients rated their depression symptoms. Those who swam with dolphins showed a greater drop in depression symptoms.

Anxiety levels also fell to a smaller degree. However, less than half of the patients had anxiety symptoms to begin with, the researchers report.

No follow-up was done, so it’s not clear how long the benefits lasted. No side effects were seen, but “accidental injuries may occur,” write Antonioli and colleagues.

To be fair, the researchers let the no-dolphin group swim with the dolphins for a day after the study ended. They also told all of the patients not to expect any benefits from either program.

Healing From Animals

Animals and nature have been found to have therapeutic benefits for sick and disabled people, the researchers write.

They call the dolphin therapy “effective” in easing depression symptoms after two weeks.

Can’t make it to dolphin therapy? The study didn’t compare dolphins to other animals for depression treatment. Having a pet may be good for your health,but consider whether your lifestyle allows for a pet.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Antonioli, C. British Medical Journal, Nov. 26, 2005; vol 331: pp 1231-1234. WebMD Medical Reference provided in collaboration with The Cleveland Clinic: “Depression: Your Guide to Depression.” WebMD Feature: “5 Ways Pets Can Improve Your Health.” WebMD Feature: “The Pet Prescription: Is It for You?” News release, British Medical Journal.