.An article about a therapy dog demonstrates some good points of these programs and places to improve. The story is about "Taco", a Chihuahua involved in pet therapy at the Livingston Regional Hospital (Tennessee). The obvious benefit of the program is highlighted by the owner’s comment "She creates smiles when there were none." There are definite social and emotional benefits of pet therapy. There are also some potential health benefits, although the research on that isn’t the strongest. On the downside, there are disease transmission concerns. These can be greatly reduced through attention to some simple procedures, but this article describes a number of concerning yet common problems:

"(Taco) greets each patient (ones who are comfortable enough to have her in their lap) with kisses on the nose."

  • Being allowed to lick patients has been shown to be a risk factor for visitation dogs acquiring MRSA. Being allowed to like the nose is about as good of a model of MRSA transmission as you can develop, because the nose is the number-one site where this important bacterium lives. This type of licking can also transmit various other infectious agents to this compromised hospital population. Licking is an unnecessary behaviour that should not be permitted because it can be associated with infectious agent transmission.  Not permitting licking does little to decrease the value of visitation.

"(Owner Gerry) Cotnoir has had Taco since she was 9 weeks old.  She worked at Bethesda [Health Care Center) in Cookeville then and brought Taco with her to work every day. "She got used to people at an early age,""

  • Socialization of dogs is important, but a hospital is not the place to do this. Only dogs older than 1 (and ideally older than 2) years of age should be in hospitals. Young animals are more likely to bite or scratch; not necessarily from aggression but also from playful or excited behaviour. Young animals also have much higher rates of shedding of various infectious agents such as Campyobacter.
  • People in hospitals should not be bringing pets to work. Animals that are in hospitals should be there for formal, structured, short-term, properly observed and properly scrutinized visitation activities. That’s not the case when someone brings a pet to work. A hospital is not a doggie day-care, although some people use them as such, with the occasional visit of a patient to explain why they are there.

The hospital’s infection control personnel have approved the use of Taco in the Livingston facility, but you have to wonder how much they investigated the issues. There are clear guidelines for hospital therapy programs which aren’t being followed here. Hopefully other important aspects of the guidelines, especially hand hygiene, are being followed. It’s likely this is a situation where people don’t understand the issues and don’t realize that there are both concerns and resources to help them out.  Any facility that has, or is thinking of having, a visitation program, should be aware of these guidelines, plus other information from reputable groups such as Delta Society.

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