(Reuters Health) - Hospitals and other healthcare facilities don’t consistently follow guidelines to ensure the safety of therapy animals and the people they aim to help, according to a survey of U.S. hospitals, eldercare facilities, and therapy animal organizations.
"While most facilities allowed therapy animals to visit, they didn’t always have strong policies in place to ensure programs that were safe and effective - for both the people and the animals,” Dr. Deborah E. Linder from Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University, North Grafton, Massachusetts told Reuters Health.
“Many facilities assume that a friendly animal or any therapy animal organization will have liability insurance, strong training and testing programs, and rigorous health and grooming requirements. But this study shows that this is not always so,” she said in an email.
Pet Partners, a Bellevue, Washington-based organization that registers therapy animals, is the only national therapy animal organization that requires volunteer training and recurring evaluation of animal-handler teams every two years, as well as prohibiting a raw meat diet (which can increase the risk of carrying bacteria that can harm patients with weakened immune systems), according to Linder’s team. Other therapy animal organizations have less comprehensive standards.
The Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America (SHEA) wrote guidelines for animals in healthcare facilities that include such important steps as establishing written policies, identifying people to act as liaisons for therapy animal visits, and having training programs for both animals and handlers, but these guidelines are only voluntary.
Dr. Linder’s team surveyed 45 hospitals, 45 eldercare facilities, and 27 regional and local therapy animal organizations regarding their therapy animal policies.
Eight hospitals and one eldercare facility said they don’t allow therapy animals. All the facilities that do allow therapy animals fell short on at least one of the SHEA guidelines, according to a report scheduled for publication in the American Journal of Infection Control.
Therapy animal policies varied widely. Two hospitals and 10 eldercare facilities had no policy whatsoever.
In general, eldercare facilities had fewer animal health and behavior requirements than hospitals, with some requiring only a minimal written health report for the animals. Most hospitals, though, required at least a meeting or registration from a therapy animal organization before participating.
As for the therapy animal organizations, one-third required only an American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen certificate and only 52% required regular retesting of animals.
The organizations’ health guidelines varied widely, too. Most required a veterinary examination, but two of the 27 organizations did not even require a rabies vaccination and 26% did not require a fecal test.
Nearly 70% of therapy animal organizations had no policy against feeding raw meat diets to therapy animals, and only 19% had policies specifically forbidding it.
“The relatively new pet food trend of feeding raw meat . . . is without any documented health benefits and can have serious health risks to animals and to people,” Dr. Linder said. “This includes the risk of bacterial infection, since up to 48% of raw meat-based diets can be contaminated with bacteria such as Salmonella.”
“Most facilities don’t think to ask about the diet of animals visiting their facilities,” she said.
Liability insurance was available from 19 of the therapy animal organizations. Two organizations said handlers needed to obtain their own liability insurance.
“You cannot assume that any program is safe without asking about the health and safety policies, insurance coverage, and rigorous training and evaluation of therapy animals,” Dr. Linder said. “We recommend people be aware and follow the expert guidelines that are out there.”
“We register our therapy animal teams through the national organization Pet Partners because they currently have the most rigorous guidelines and policies for therapy animals (www.petpartners.org),” she said.
Dr. Linder added, “Lax health and safety policies typically aren’t intentional but occur as a result of enthusiasm for therapy animal programs without being aware of potential risks and what questions to ask.”
For institutions that want to do more, she said, her team has created a free manual “that walks facilities through developing a program including what questions to ask,” available at bit.ly/2t4601l.
Dr. Indu Mani from Brookline Animal Hospital in Massachusetts studies how pet therapy can enhance patient care. She told Reuters Health by email that therapy animals have had good clinical and psychosocial effects in varied settings. But, she added, the potential for allergies, fear of animals/animal temperament, and the risk for infectious diseases need consideration.
She too recommends following the SHEA guidelines.
Lack of adherence to accepted professional guidelines could put both pets and human beings at risk, Mani concluded.
She added, “The lack of regulatory oversight and lack of enforcement of the SHEA guidelines is startling.”
SOURCE: bit.ly/2hMzBXC American Journal of Infection Control, released June 19, 2017.