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Many hospitals and elder-care facilities lack safety policies for therapy animals, study finds

REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Lily Sroboda, 11, a patient at Childrens Hospital Colorado, gets a visit from Brownie, a therapy dog.

Bringing dogs and other pets into nursing homes and hospitals to help improve patients’ mental, emotional and physical well-being has become increasingly popular in recent years.

Research has linked such animal-assisted therapy with several positive health outcomes, including lower blood pressure, improved mood and even (more controversially) the delayed onset of dementia.

But animal-assisted therapy programs also pose risks. Some patients are allergic to certain animals — or have longstanding fears of them. Also, an animal — even a well-trained one — may unexpectedly engage in behavior that harms the patient, such as biting or scratching.

There’s another risk, however, that’s potentially even more problematic: the transmission of zoonotic pathogens (ones that can spread disease between animals and humans). Some of these pathogens are particularly likely to be present in animals fed raw meat for their meals or treats.

One study found zoonotic pathogens, including salmonella, clostridium and giardia, in 80 percent of the therapy dogs it tested.

Both the American Veterinary Association and the Society of Healthcare Epidemiology of America have written guidelines that establish a minimum level of safety for animal-assisted therapy programs. Yet, following those guidelines is voluntary, and no U.S. regulatory agency is currently responsible for monitoring the safety of animal-assisted therapy programs.

Study details

To determine what health and safety policies are in place for animal-assisted therapy programs, researchers at the Tufts Institute for Animal Interaction at Tufts University decided to conduct a survey of hospitals, elder-care facilities and animal-assisted therapy organizations across the country. They selected a representative sampling of 45 hospitals (public and private), 45 elder-care facilities (independent living communities, assisted-living facilities and full-time nursing care homes) and 27 regional and local animal-assisted therapy groups.

The surveys revealed that 18 percent of the hospitals (8 out of 45) and 2 percent of the elder-care facilities (1 out of 45) did not permit therapy animals. Of those that did allow the animals, however, safety policies varied widely. Some of the facilities — 4 percent of the hospitals (2 out of 45) and 22 percent of the elder-care facilities (10 out of 45) “had no policy whatsoever,” write the researchers.

Furthermore, 16 percent of the hospitals and 40 percent of the elder-care facilities required only a minimal written health record for the therapy animal. 

And, despite the known association between raw meat and zoonotic pathogens, 70 percent of the animal-therapy organizations that responded to the survey (19 out of 27) said they allowed their therapy animals to be fed raw-meat diets.

‘A call to action’

Here are a few other rather startling findings: 7 percent of the organizations (2 out of 27) did not have a rabies vaccination requirement for their therapy animals, 26 percent (7 out of 27) did not require a veterinary examination, and 67 percent (18 out of 27) required only a Canine Good-Citizen certificate from the American Kennel Club as proof of good behavior — a certificate that is not intended to demonstrate the animal’s suitability of animal-assisted therapy programs.

“The findings should serve as a call to action for hospitals, elder-care facilities and therapy animal organizations to strengthen the safety measures of the [animal-assisted therapy] programs and for those hosting visits to ask the right questions when arranging animal visitation on their sites,” said Deborah Linder, a veterinarian and associated director of Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction, in a released statement. “Education is key in ensuring that health and safety are the top priority for both humans and animals so the benefits of animal-assisted intervention may continue to outweigh the risks.”

FMI: The study was published online Monday in the American Journal of Infection Control, although it doesn’t seem to be posted for public access there yet. I’ll update the link when it’s available. UPDATE: The article is now online, and you can find it here.

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