Survey: Can therapy animal visits pose a risk to patients?

Survey found that most facilities that allow therapy animal visits don’t follow or have health and safety recommendations or policies.

Studies have shown that therapy animals improve the emotional well-being and health for patients of all shapes and sizes. However, a new survey from the Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction at Tufts University has shown that there are no standardized health and safety policies for hospitals, eldercare facilities or therapy animal organizations. Many do not follow recommended guidelines for animal visitations either, and this can potentially put not only people at risk, but also animals too.

According to a Tufts University press release:

“In addition to concerns about human allergies to animals, animal behavior, stress on the animal and appropriate animal immunizations, [animal-assisted intervention (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 hand-washing 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 findings should serve as a call to action for hospitals, eldercare facilities and therapy animal organizations to strengthen the safety measures of their AAI programs and for those hosting visits to ask the right questions when arranging animal visitation on their sites,” said the study’s corresponding author, Deborah Linder, D.V.M., research assistant professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University and associate director of Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction in the same press release. “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.”

Guidelines for safety, health and monitoring do exist, with one set from the AVMA and another from the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America. Tufts University has also produced a manual of their own.

The lack of enforcement for policies or guidelines is the real issue, however.

“While these recommended guidelines exist, no human or animal health regulatory agencies are currently responsible for monitoring AAI programs or enforcing guidelines,” said the study’s senior author Lisa Freeman, D.V.M, Ph.D., professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and director of Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction. “Given the lack of studies documenting national trends in health and safety policies for AAI, we wanted to understand how hospitals, eldercare facilities and therapy animal organizations are incorporating the guidelines into their policies.”

The results of the survey are available at the Tufts University website and have also been published in the American Journal of Infection Control.

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