Providers need clear rules for animal therapy visits

Therapy dog, patient and nurse
Many healthcare facilities lack guidelines and best practices to ensure that animals are brought in safely. (Getty/monkeybusinessimages)

Therapy animals can substantially benefit patients with a variety of health conditions, but many healthcare facilities lack guidelines and best practices to ensure that animals are brought in safely.

Researchers at the Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction at Tufts University surveyed hospitals, elder care facilities and therapy animal organizations to determine which, if any, had policies in place regarding therapy animal visitation.

Of 45 hospitals, 4% had no policy in place for animal-assisted interactions and 16% required only a minimal written health record for the therapy animal. Of 45 elder facilities, 22% had no policy.

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Therapy animals can soothe patients and improve mood, and for some can lower blood pressure and delay the onset of dementia. But bringing animals into healthcare settings carries clear risks; other patients may be allergic, for example, and if hand-hygiene rules are not closely followed, they could react. Animals on a raw food diet could spread certain bacteria that may be dangerous for immunocompromised patients.

The survey results should call providers to action to ensure that animal-assisted intervention programs are safe for all patients, said veterinarian Deborah Linder, associate director for the institute and the study’s corresponding author, in an announcement.

"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,” she said

A number of healthcare facilities took the opposite approach, and banned therapy animals outright; 18% of responding hospitals and 2% of elder care facilities permitted only service animals.

Having a plan in place for patients’ pets or therapy animals can prevent a bad experience for the patient. If non-service animals are not allowed on the premises, make sure that is made clear to avoid what would likely be a negative response.