Does animal therapy pose a risk to patients?

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New research suggests many hospitals may not be protecting patients from the risks of such therapy.

In recent years there has been an increase is the popularity of so-called animal-assisted intervention (AAI) programmes, or ‘pet therapy’. Studies have demonstrated that AAI can result in positive health outcomes, including reductions in blood pressure, improved mood, and delayed onset of dementia.

However, the authors of a new study are warning that without appropriate policies in place, such programmes could jeopardise both human and animal safety. They highlight that AAI programmes are a potential risk factor for transmission of zoonotic disease, especially when health, grooming and hand washing protocols are not carefully used. Potential health risks also arise from therapy animals eating raw meat-based diets or treats, which are at high risk of being contaminated with bacteria such as Campylobacter, Salmonella, and Cryptosporidium.

The authors surveyed 45 hospitals, 45 facilities for older people and 27 therapy animal organisations, to assess existing policies related to animal health and behavioural prerequisites for therapy animals and AAI programmes and found many respondents’ policies and practices did not address the well-known risks of such programmes.

The authors said education is key to ensuring that health and safety are top priority for both humans and animals so the benefits of animal-assisted intervention outweigh the risks.

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