Despite the proven benefits pet therapy programs have on patients’ recovery, there are some risks. And hospitals haven’t had much guidance for creating policies to reduce these risks – until now.

The Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America (SHEA) has just issued guidelines hospitals should follow when it comes to allowing animals on the premises for various reasons, including for animal therapy. SHEA’s new guidance is designed to help keep patients safe from problems such as infections, bites and allergic reactions.

To create its guidance, SHEA reviewed the existing policies of several facilities. The organization also looked at data from various studies about animals in healthcare settings and surveyed several of its members about best practices, according to an article in Scientific American.

Best pet-therapy practices

When it comes to pet therapy and other “animal-assisted activities,” SHEA recommends that hospitals only use dogs that are at least a year old. Dogs should be fully trained and evaluated by a professional to ensure their behavior is appropriate for a healthcare setting. Pet-therapy handlers and volunteers should also have formal training under their belts before visiting a hospital.

Any dog visiting a facility should be vaccinated against rabies, and animal handlers should have all required immunizations as well. Before entering the hospital, the dog should be combed to prevent dander and loose hair from being left in the hospital.

A hospital’s best bet is to only allow animals that have been certified by an established pet therapy training organization, according to SHEA guidelines. It’s also smart for hospitals to require pet therapy animals to be evaluated by a veterinarian at least once a year.

When dogs visit the facility, patients who want to play with them shouldn’t be allowed to eat or drink during the visit. In addition, patients should be required to wash their hands both before and after touching or petting the dogs. To further minimize infection risk, handlers should keep dogs away from invasive medical devices, bandages and body parts with damaged skin.

Cats and kittens shouldn’t be allowed in an animal-therapy program for various reasons. Cats typically can’t be trained as well as dogs can. They also pose a bigger infection risk: Cats are more likely to bite and scratch humans than trained dogs are, and cat injuries tend to spread more bacteria.

One more reason to avoid having cats in a hospital: People are generally more likely to be allergic to cats than dogs.

Personal pet visits

SHEA has released guidance for personal pets visiting hospitals. In general, personal pets shouldn’t be allowed in hospitals, simply because it’s harder to determine whether they’ve been socialized properly or if they have the required vaccinations.

However, exceptions to this rule can and should be made in cases where the benefit of having a patient’s pet visit outweigh the risks – though visits should still be restricted to dogs. And just as with pet-therapy visits, patients should wash their hands before and after contact with their pooches.

Service animals

And for hospitals that don’t have formal policies about service animals, SHEA also released guidance about them. A hospital’s policy about service animals should line up with regulations in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as well as any state and local laws. It should clearly state that only dogs and miniature horses are recognized as service animals under the ADA.

If a patient is admitted with a service animal, hospital staff should speak with the patient to ensure that he or she follows the facility’s protocol when it comes to animals in the hospital. The hospital’s infection prevention team should also be notified of the animal’s presence, just as a precaution.

And while hospital staff can ask the patient to describe the tasks that the animal performs, it’s against the law to require patients to produce “certification” or “papers” proving they need the animal’s assistance.

Facility policy

Hospitals should use SHEA’s new guidelines to create their own formal, written policies for pet-therapy and other animals visiting the facility. And they should inform patients and their families about these policies up front so there’s no confusion, especially if a patient will be at the facility long-term.

Having clear policies in place for animal visits helps keep patients safe while still allowing them the comfort of a four-legged friend during their hospital stay.

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