There's an interesting article in today's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about Scooter, a paralyzed cat in a custom-made cart, that visits patients at HealthSouth Harmarville Rehabilitation Hospital. It's a nice story and it's easy to see the potential appeal of a paralyzed animal whipping around a rehab hospital as an inspiration to patients.
Obviously, people like having this cat in the hospital, and he's helped some patients. That's not surprising because we know that pet therapy can be beneficial to many. My concern in this case is for the cat's health, and the heart of the issue is whether the benefits to patients are because Scooter's a paralyzed cat or because he's a cat, and whether the benefit to patients justifies the risk to the cat.
Paralyzed animals are at increased risk for certain infections. In particular, they are at very high risk for urinary tract infections. These animals tend to get recurrent urinary tract infections and enter a downward spiral of infection / treatment / infection / treatment / resistant infection / treatment / more resistant infection... and in some cases end up with infections that are very difficult or impossible to eliminate. In some cases, urinary tract infections in paralyzed individuals can result in infection spreading to the rest of the body, which can be fatal.
Back to my concerns for Scooter: We know that the hospital environment is contaminated with various drug-resistant bacteria. We know that patients in hospitals are often carrying drug-resistant bacteria. We know that dogs that participate in visitation programs are at increased risk of acquiring drug-resistant bacteria. So, do we really want to be exposing a high-risk animal to such an environment, and potentially speed up the cycle of infection that could ultimately cause severe illness or even death in the animal?
There's no clear answer, but we need to consider the risks to visitation animals, and whether the novelty of having a paralyzed cat (instead of a normal, healthy cat) visiting patients is really a significant enough benefit to justify the potential risk to the cat.
Image: A paralyzed cat using a mobility cart (source: www.k9-carts.com)