For a hospitalized patient, a visit from a furry companion can raise flagging spirits, reduce anxiety and depression, improve cooperation with treatment, and even lessen pain.
While nearly 90% of U.S. hospitals say they allow animal therapy or animal visits in their facilities, there's little concrete data available about the associated health risks, including the potential for infection. Many hospitals lack any formal policy governing animal visits in their facilities.
“There are many things for which we have scientific data and clear-cut guidelines,” said Dr. Rekha Murthy, medical director of the hospital epidemiology department at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. “This isn't one of those areas.”
To fill that gap, Murthy and her colleagues recently released a set of recommendations aimed at reducing the health risks associated with animals in healthcare facilities.
Murthy acknowledged that the chance of infection is probably small, but she pointed to anecdotal reports of animals linked to hospital outbreaks of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, and Clostridium difficile. “As we have sicker and sicker patients, we need do everything we can to identify ways to mitigate those risks,” she said.
Their suggestions cover the types of animals that should be allowed in hospitals, how animals should be trained and screened, the role of infection-prevention staff and which areas of the hospital should be off-limits to four-legged visitors.
For instance, they recommend that hospitals allow only dogs in their visiting and therapy programs, though some facilities permit cats and even miniature horses. Cats should be kept out of the hospital because they can't be reliably trained and are more likely to bite and scratch, they said.