Survey reveals possible health risks of therapy dog programs

A recent survey suggests healthcare facilities should standardize their guidelines for safety when it comes to therapy animals.

Researchers from the Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction at Tufts University surveyed eldercare facilities, hospitals, and therapy animal organizations on their existing policies related to animal-assisted intervention (AAI) programs. The results showed that health and safety policies vary widely. The study was published in the June 2017 issue of the American Journal of Infection Control.

The surveys were gathered from 45 eldercare facilities, 45 hospitals, and 27 therapy animal organizations across the United States. Results showed that the policies put in place by these different facilities and organizations did not necessarily address the health risks that AAI programs can introduce.

Some of the health risks from therapy animal programs include people having allergies to the animals, the animals’ behavior, and the animals not receiving the appropriate immunization. An AAI program in a facility could also cause the transmission of zoonotic diseases if health, grooming, and handwashing protocols are not carefully followed.

Some of the results showed that not all facilities that use AAI programs have set policies put in place. For example, 4% of hospitals and 22% of eldercare facilities did not have policies put in place. Others had policies in place but did not require an extensive amount of paperwork: 16% of hospitals and 40% of eldercare facilities required minimal written health records for therapy animals.

For the therapy animal organizations, 74% required animals to be examined by a veterinarian before participating in an AAI program and 7% did not have a rabies vaccination requirement. One result saw that 70% of these organizations allowed therapy animals to eat raw meat diets. Allowing animals to eat these diets could put patients who are immunocompromised at risk, because raw diets are more likely to be contaminated with bacteria.

As far as behavior results, 33% of the organizations said that a test of basic obedience skills or an American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen certificate were enough for the animals to participate in the programs, while the rest had additional requirements.

The study was designed to be representative, but the researchers acknowledged that it was limited in sample size and that the facilities were not surveyed about their knowledge of existing health and safety guidelines for AAI programs. Some standardized guidelines do exist, including those developed by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America (SHEA), and by the Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction.

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