As we start seeing a light at the end of the (long) tunnel, we have to think about how and when to restart various activities. One particular activity that I get a lot of emails about is pet therapy/visitation programs. These are great programs, where animals (usually, and ideally, dogs) are taken into facilities to interact with residents or patients. They’re not for everyone, but have been shown to have physical and mental health benefits. Not surprisingly, they were largely stopped during COVID-19 pandemic, but many are now gearing up again.
What’s the risk of animal visitation programs?
The main issue isn’t the animals (at least when it comes to dogs), it’s the human component. Human visitors pose much more risk than most pets, since people are more likely to be infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus and an infected person poses a greater risk of spreading the virus than an infected pet. That’s particularly true with dogs, who are not uncommonly infected by their owners but who are low (or maybe almost no) risk for transmitting it back to people. Also, if the animal happens to be infected, it’s quite possible the owner is too.
So, there is some risk from these programs, but the main (if not exclusive) risk is from an infected handler.
When can these programs restart?
The focus should really be on deciding:
- when COVID-19 is controlled enough in humans the area
- when resident/patient vaccination rates are high enough
- when animal handler vaccination rates are high enough
- what basic practices to identify high risk handlers (e.g. those with respiratory disease) need to be in place.
Should vaccination be mandatory for pet therapy program participants?
(Bracing for the next wave of anti-vaxxer “love” letters as I say this…)
In my opinion, yes, vaccination should be mandatory for the people (not the animals). A reasonable exemption for people that TRULY CANNOT be vaccinated is reasonable, but the bar has to be high so that “cannot” and “don’t wanna” are differentiated.
Mandating vaccination of handlers would be a logical measure for a voluntary activity that involves close contact with a disproportionate percentage of high-risk participants. Also, there’s a need to make sure handlers received both doses of vaccine, as concerns about the delta variant increase.
The other approach could be to have a phased re-introduction, e.g. fully (2-dose) vaccinated people can start first, with follow up assessment of when people who are not vaccinated can start as well. That way the policy isn’t saying unvaccinated people can’t participate, it just says they can’t yet. That’s not an unusual approach now as people start to think about re-opening in other areas and how vaccination comes into play for that.
How to we reduce the risk in the event an infected person (or animal) ends up visiting?
Good ol’ infection control and common sense. There are very good guidelines for healthcare visitation programs that apply to most animal visitation settings, and those are the core of risk reduction. A little basic hygiene and common sense go a long way.