MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Deborah Linder, DVM, MS, DACVN
Research assistant professor
Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine
Tufts University and
Associate director of the Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction
MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study?
Response: In our experience with our own therapy animal program, Tufts Paws for People, we have seen facilities and organizations put animals and people at risk by not following rigorous health and safety policies, and this certainly was confirmed by the results of our study. 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. Also, it’s not just obvious problems that can occur, such as bites or allergies. It also can be an animal spreading infections due to diet or inadequate grooming, or unwanted stress on the animal.
MedicalResearch.com: What are the main findings?
Response: To us, the most important findings are that 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. 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. Since there are no national requirements for therapy animal organizations or programs, it’s incumbent on facilities to carefully think through policies for animal visitation!
MedicalResearch.com: What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?
Response: Ask questions! 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. We recommend people be aware and follow the expert guidelines that are out there. Some therapy animal organizations have standards that can address the important issues, but this study shows that you can’t assume that all organizations do. 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).
MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?
Response: There are many benefits of animals and we certainly don’t want to discourage facilities from developing animal visitation programs. However, the most important thing that a facility can do is ask questions and create policies that safeguard themselves, their residents, and the animals participating. There are two guidelines available and we’ve created a free manual that walks facilities through developing a program including what questions to ask: http://hai.tufts.edu/paws/download-the-manual/. I think the next step for research would be to assess outcomes of animal-assisted interventions, particularly cost-effectiveness studies to determine the optimal role of human-animal interaction in healthcare settings when done safely.
MedicalResearch.com: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Response: We were very surprised about a relatively new pet food trend of feeding raw meat-based diets that is without any documented health benefits and can have serious health risks to animals and to people. This includes the risk of bacterial infection since up to 48% of raw meat based diets can be contaminated with bacteria such as Salmonella. This is a serious risk in the general population, but especially in healthcare facilities where residents can be immunocompromised. Unfortunately, our study showed that 70% of therapy animal organizations allowed animals eating raw meat-based diets to visit facilities. Most facilities don’t think to ask about the diet of animals visiting their facilities.
(Disclosures: Deborah Linder, Megan Mueller, Lisa Freeman and Debra Gibbs are registered animal handlers of Pet Partners [whoever is doing interview], and Lisa Freeman is a member of the Human-Animal Bond Advisory Board for Pet Partners.)
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Linder, D., Siebens, H., Mueller, M., Gibbs, D., Freeman, L. Animal-Assisted Interventions: A National Survey of Health and Safety Policies in Hospitals, Eldercare Facilities, and Therapy Animal Organizations. American Journal of Infection Control, 2017 DOI: 10.1016/j.ajic.2017.04.287
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