Pet therapy programs are becoming more common in senior living and health care facilities, but a surprising number of facilities have safety concerns related to pet visitors. Pet therapy programs have been shown to provide health benefits to human participants, such as reduced blood pressure and improved mood, and have increased in prevalence in recent years. But while these programs offer notable benefits, there are some risks involved as well. In addition to concerns such as bites or allergies, the spread of infection is a less obvious but significant potential concern.
In a recent study, 45 senior living facilities and 45 hospitals were surveyed about their policies regarding pet therapy programs. Overall, hospitals tended to have stricter policies than senior living facilities. Forty percent of senior living facilities required minimal written documentation that the animals were healthy, but 22 percent had no formal requirements. By comparison, 16 percent of hospitals required minimal written documentation, and only 4 percent had no formal requirements.
There are no regulatory agencies that enforce guidelines for pet therapy in senior living or health care facilities, although organizations such as the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America have developed recommended guidelines that address pet visitors in health care settings. The study did not assess familiarity with specific guidelines, so it is possible that health care providers are unaware of some of the risks. The benefits and appeal of this kind of program are hard to ignore, but it is important to acknowledge the risks as well.