Pet therapy: What about the risks to the animals?

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:

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Comments (4) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Gayle Robison, DVM - July 26, 2010 1:30 PM

Scott, I think we can probably trust Scooter's veterinarian owner to be vigilant about UTIs, particularly if any resistant bugs get involved. If the owner were a layperson I would happily echo your concerns.

Scott Weese - July 26, 2010 1:49 PM

Thanks for the comments. It's not really being vigilant that's the problem, though. It's speeding up the cycle of resistant infections that we get into with these cases. I may be overly sensitive to the problem because I consult on the worst-of-the-worst infections, I'm getting more and more calls about almost pan-resistant UTIs in pets like these, and they're not a good scene. As a vet, the owner is more likely to promptly recognize the infection and hopefully ensure that there is good treatment compliance, but even with that, an MRSA/VRE/ESBL Enterobacteriaceae infection is very difficult to treat. Those bugs are widespread in human hospitals, and all over the floors, so exposure is certainly a concern.


D Lawrence, DVM - July 26, 2010 7:57 PM

I recognize your concern for Scooter. However, the cat has had 2 good years so far, and who are we to say he can't have many more. Worst case scenario, if he would develop an antibiotic resistant UTI that was interfering with QOL, euthanasia would be a viable alternative. Hopefully that won't be an issue, and the cat could have been euthanized 2 years ago for what seemed to be an unsolvable problem. Hats off to Dr Kennon, for working with a cat that too many of us would have given up on.


Laurie - July 31, 2010 8:08 AM

I am a nurse of 35 years. This is an inspiration artical. When working at Gate way haven of Wiarton in the past ,The residents loved any form of pet therapy. Cudos to all involved with this. The residents that are normally seclusive , come out of there shell and pet the animals and talk about it for days.I eespecially like the horse interactions with the mentally ill. Scooter is amaizing

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