Pets Help in Hospitals, But Safety May Be Lacking

A dog attends to a little boy in a hospital.
(Image credit: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)

A visit from a golden retriever can brighten a person's day when in the hospital or in a senior-care facility. But the policies for pet therapy programs in health care facilities may fall short in protecting the people and pets involved, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that hospitals typically had stricter health and safety policies for animal-visitation programs than eldercare facilities did. Those facilities tended to have fewer requirements to confirm that visiting pets were healthy and had up-to-date immunizations, for example. The findings were published online (June 19) in the American Journal of Infection Control.

The facilities surveyed didn't always have strong policies in place to ensure that their animal therapy programs were safe and effective for both the participants and the visiting animals, said veterinarian Deborah Linder, the lead author of the study and associate director of the Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction at Tufts University in North Grafton, Massachusetts. [10 Things You Didn't Know About Dogs]

People at health care facilities often assume that therapy-animal organizations have liability insurance, strong training programs for the animals, and testing standards for both the animals and their handlers, as well as rigorous health and grooming requirements for the animals, Linder told Live Science. But the new findings show that this is not always the case, she said.

Previous studies have shown that animal therapy programs can have several health benefits: They may reduce participants' blood pressure, improve mood and calm people with dementia

Even though these positive effects usually exceed any potential dangers posed by the animals, pet therapy programs can carry some risks, the researchers said. Not everyone likes animals, some people are allergic to them, and some pets may bite or transmit disease to individuals with weakened immune systems, according to the study authors.

Another drawback is that although animal visitation programs have become increasingly popular in the United States, there are no national requirements for therapy-animal organizations that provide the services or the facilities that host the animals.

To find out more about these policies and procedures, the researchers conducted two surveys: one of hospitals and senior care facilities and a second of the therapy-animal organizations that arrange the visits. Using phone or email, the researchers contacted 45 hospitals, 45 eldercare facilities (independent-living communities, assisted-living centers and nursing care facilities) and 27 therapy-animal organizations from nine states in different regions of the country.

Benefits and risks

The researchers found that 16 percent of hospitals and 40 percent of eldercare facilities required written confirmation that the therapy animal was healthy, while 4 percent of hospitals and 22 percent of eldercare facilities accepted a verbal confirmation of the pet's health. In addition, 4 percent of hospitals and 22 percent of eldercare facilities surveyed had no requirements for documentation of the animals' health, the study found. 

Only 7 percent of a facilities required that an animal and its handler meet with a facility administrator before interacting with any patients so the administrator can assess the appropriateness of the animal's behavior. [6 Secrets to Unlocking Your Cat's Personality

Pet therapy programs may allow participants to walk or play with the animals or let the pets sit on their laps. But the study found that 26 percent of the programs did not require that the animals have a veterinary exam, and 7 percent did not even require visiting pets to have rabies vaccinations

This study is not meant to discourage facilities from developing and holding animal visitation programs, Linder said. But she encouraged the facilities to ask questions and create policies that safeguard themselves, their residents and the participating animals.

Health care facilities and animal therapy organizations can put animals and people at risk by failing to follow strict health and safety policies, Linder said. She said she doesn't believe lax policies are intentional, but instead may result from an enthusiasm for pet therapy programs and limited awareness of the potential risks.

It's not just that obvious problems can occur, such as animal bites and allergies, Linder said. Risks can also arise from a visiting animal spreading infections due to diet or inadequate grooming, she said. Problems may even arise because unwanted stress placed on the animals from participating in the program leads to behavioral issues, she explained.

For example, a new trend among pet owners is feeding animals a "raw meat diet." But raw meat may be contaminated with bacteria such as Salmonella, and if pet therapy animals have consumed this meat, they could pose a risk to people in health care facilities who have weakened immune systems, Linder said. [America's Favorite Pets]

Checking on health and safety policies can cover everything from asking about rabies vaccinations and ensuring the visiting animal's temperament is suitable for a pet visitation program to confirming annual veterinary screenings and the training received by the therapy animal and the volunteer handler. Linder also recommended asking the animal therapy organization about its liability insurance coverage as well as how often it tests and evaluates the therapy animal and volunteer handler.

Some animal therapy organizations have rigorous standards for their programs, but this study shows that not all of them have the same standards, Linder noted.

If facilities and organizations want to develop an animal visitation program, Tufts Paws for People, the veterinary school's therapy animal program, has created a free manual that offers step-by-step instructions for creating one, including appropriate questions to ask before hosting the activity, Linder said.

Originally published on Live Science.

Live Science Contributor

Cari Nierenberg has been writing about health and wellness topics for online news outlets and print publications for more than two decades. Her work has been published by Live Science, The Washington Post, WebMD, Scientific American, among others. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in nutrition from Cornell University and a Master of Science degree in Nutrition and Communication from Boston University.