'Pet therapy' could be putting residents, others in danger

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Photo: Dominick Reuter for Tufts University
Photo: Dominick Reuter for Tufts University

As “pet therapy” programs become more popular, a new study finds that senior living communities often deviate from animal visitation guidelines meant to protect residents, staff, visitors and the animals.

Twenty-two percent of eldercare facilities surveyed by researchers at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University did not have policies related to animal visitation, and approximately 40% of eldercare facilities required only minimal written health records of the animals that visited to provide therapy. By comparison, 4% of hospitals had written policies related to animal visitation, and 16% of hospitals required only minimal written health records for therapy animals.

Studies have shown that animal-assisted intervention programs, as they formally are known, can lower blood pressure, improve mood and delay the onset for dementia, according to the researchers, but many concerns exist. Among them are allergies, animal behavior, stress on the animal, lack of appropriate animal immunizations and the potential for disease spread between animals and people. Including protocols for health, grooming and handwashing in community policies related to animal visitation can help mitigate some risks, the researchers said.

“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,” said Deborah Linder, DVM, research assistant professor at the school, associate director of Tufts Institute for Human–Animal Interaction and the study's corresponding author.

The research, which was conducted by the institute, included 45 eldercare facilities, 45 hospitals and 27 therapy animal organizations. The eldercare facilities included independent living communities, assisted living communities and full-time nursing care facilities.

This study was published in the American Journal of Infection Control.

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