Could therapy animal visitation pose health risks at patient facilities?

Could therapy animal visitation pose health risks at patient facilities?

A survey of United States hospitals, eldercare facilities and therapy animal organizations revealed their health and safety policies for therapy animal visits varied widely, with many not following recommended guidelines for animal visitation. The research from investigators at Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction at Tufts University appears online on June 19, 2017, in advance of print in the American Journal of Infection Control.

Animal-assisted intervention (AAI) programs, sometimes known as therapy animal or "pet therapy" programs, are increasing in popularity, and studies have shown they can result in positive physical and mental health outcomes for human participants, such as lowered blood pressure, improved mood and delayed onset of dementia. But without appropriate policies in place, these programs can jeopardize both human and animal safety, according to the study's authors.

In addition to concerns about human allergies to animals, animal behavior, stress on the animal and appropriate animal immunizations, AAI programs have a potential risk of transmission of zoonotic disease -- diseases spread between animals and people. This risk is especially high when health, grooming and handwashing protocols are not carefully used. Another potential risk could come from therapy animals eating raw meat-based diets or treats, which are at high risk of being contaminated with bacteria such as Campylobacter, Salmonella and Cryptosporidium. These pathogens may pose risks to both humans and animals, and especially immunocompromised patients.

The survey results showed that many respondents' policies and practices do not address these and other risks.

Researchers gathered responses from 45 eldercare facilities, 45 hospitals, and 27 therapy animal organizations across the country on their existing policies related to animal health and behavioral prerequisites for therapy animals and AAI programs. National therapy animal organizations (e.g. Pet Partners, Therapy Dogs International, or American Kennel Club Therapy Program) and groups stating affiliation with national organizations were not included in the survey because their policies are readily available.



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