Facilities may be underestimating risk of animals in pet therapy programs

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Almost one-fourth (22%) of eldercare facilities have no policy whatsoever for animal-assisted intervention programs, also called therapy animal or pet therapy programs, according to a new academic study.

Among 45 eldercare facilities, 40% of eldercare facilities required a minimal written health record for the therapy animal, while 22% had no policy on their books at all, said researchers from the Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction. Investigators found that 18% of hospitals and 2% of eldercare facilities did not permit therapy dogs.

AAI programs can pose problems for those with allergies and increase the risk of zoonotic disease, the academic veterinarians warned. Therapy animals that eat raw meat-based treats can become contaminated with bacteria such as salmonella, posing a risk for 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 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.

Among therapy animal organizations involved in the study, 74% required animals to be examined by a vet before participating in AAI and a third indicated they tested basic obedience skills or asked for a American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizen certificate.

While organization and guidance is needed, AAI programs can encourage more engagement and longer participation in therapy in eldercare facilities, a Tufts manual on health and safety guidelines for therapy animals states. Researchers said follow-up studies should seek to better understand how guidelines should be disseminated.

Full results were scheduled to appear in the American Journal of Infection Control.