Healthcare News & Insights

Animal therapy: Prevent health risks at your hospital

Animal therapy programs at hospitals have many benefits. They improve the mood of both patients and staff, which contributes to better recoveries and a lower chance of burnout. But there are also risks involved in bringing animals onsite – and some hospitals aren’t keeping the potential problems in mind. 

One big risk involves the transmission of disease between animals and humans. As written in a press release from Tufts University, the likelihood of spreading disease is higher when established protocols for hand washing, health and grooming aren’t followed carefully.

Germs can also be spread through an animal’s diet. If a therapy animal’s being fed raw meat, it may end up getting exposed to bacteria such as salmonella and cryptosporidium (a parasite), which can be passed on to patients and worsen their conditions.

New guidelines

In 2015, the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America (SHEA) introduced updated guidelines for handling animal visitation in the healthcare setting. Although this guidance can help hospitals shape their animal therapy policies, there are no legal mandates for facilities to follow these rules.

Because of this, policies for animal therapy programs at hospitals and other healthcare facilities typically don’t address some of the biggest risks. Researchers from Tufts surveyed various hospitals, therapy animal organizations and eldercare facilities to find out what’s included in their policies for animal therapy.

Incomplete policies

Per Tufts’ research, while only 4% of hospitals had no formal policy in place for animal therapy programs, 16% only required minimal details about the therapy animal’s health record. Seven percent of facilities didn’t require animals to be vaccinated for rabies. Twenty-six percent didn’t require a fecal test. And 70% of facilities allowed animals on raw meat diets to participate in therapy programs.

Most (74%) did require animals to be examined by a veterinarian before being allowed to participate in animal therapy. But some facilities had lax requirements for animal temperament. About a third said a test of basic obedience skills, or a Canine Good Citizen certificate from the American Kennel Club, was enough to make an animal qualified to participate in a therapy program.

And only a little over half (52%) of facilities that required animals to undergo behavioral testing also required animals to be retested on a regular basis to monitor potential changes.

Tufts researchers didn’t ask participating facilities if they were aware of the SHEA guidelines, or if they intentionally incorporated any of them into their policies for animal therapy. But they’re a good reference for covering all the bases with hospital animal therapy.

Animal therapy programs have myriad benefits. Creating clear, thorough policies before allowing animals onsite to interact with hospital staff and patients helps ensure that animal therapy has a positive impact on your facility while mitigating the risks.

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