I’ve had a lot of emails about some news reports describing a program at Juravinski Hospital in Hamilton (Ontario) that allows personal pets to visit. Zachary’s Paws for Healing is touted as the first of its kind in Canada (which is far from true, but perhaps it’s the most formal).
Animals in healthcare facilities are nothing new. In a study we did a few years ago, the vast majority of Ontario hospitals had some type of animal visitation program (albeit usually poorly designed and operated). Things have improved, in part because of increased awareness and in part because of better guidelines.
There are some advantages and disadvantages of using personal pets vs formal pet visitation programs:
- The person probably gets a much greater benefit from visiting with his or her own animal.
- These animals and their handlers are not trained and screened like dogs in visitation programs.
The cost-benefit for the facility as a whole really depends on the program and how it’s run. If there is a formal mechanism to approve pet visitation, there are guidelines about which pets can and cannot visit, and there are clear visitation rules in place, the risks can typically be minimized. One very important rule is making sure that the pet only interacts with its owner. That’s easier said than done, since it’s not easy to walk a dog through a hospital without someone coming up to it wanting to pet it (or the dog trying to walk up to other people to get attention, depending on the dog’s personality).
There are some guidelines to help these programs. The most recent is an “Expert Guidance” document prepared by the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America (SHEA). This was an evolution of the international guidelines that we published in 2008 (Lefebvre et al, Am J Infect Control 2008). In the 2008 guidelines, we just addressed visitation programs, not personal pets. In the 2015 SHEA document, we covered more than just visitation program, including personal pets. The information about the program on the Zachary’s Paws for Healing website is pretty basic, but they’ve covered some of the important aspects of the current guidelines.
More and more evidence supports the health (physical and mental) benefits of animal contact in healthcare facilities. That’s balanced by zoonotic disease risks. Good programs (and good adherence to policies) can help make sure that the benefits outweigh the risks. I suspect we’ll see more of these programs in the future.