June 8, 2015

The safest ways to allow pets in the hospital

Daily Briefing

    Therapy animals can help patients in the hospital heal, but they also may increase the risk of certain infections. New recommendations outline ways to let furry friends lift sagging spirits while keeping patients safe, Modern Healthcare's Maureen McKinney reports.

    Around 90% of hospitals allow animal visits, but there is little data on how such visits contribute to infection risk, McKinney writes. Rekha Murthy, medical director of the hospital epidemiology department at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, says the lack of scientific data has left many providers without formal policies to reduce risks.

    Animal therapy: More hospitals allow visits from man's best friend

    To address the issue, Murthy and her colleagues reviewed the available data and surveyed several hundred members of the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America to produce a set of recommendations. Their findings were published in Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology.

    Murthy notes the risk of infection from therapy animals is likely minimal, but there is anecdotal evidence of animals being vectors for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (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 says.

    The guidelines identify the species of animals that are appropriate in hospital settings, recommend training for the animals, and explain ways that hospital staff can reduce infection risk.  Specific recommendations include:

    • Only allowing dogs in visit and therapy rooms;
    • Developing formal written policies for animal visits;
    • Documenting all visits and tracking outcomes; and
    • Training animal handlers in infection-control protocols and risks.

    Murthy says the recommendations are a rough guide for providers. "Our intention was to give hospitals guidance they could use while also making their own judgments," she explains.

    Cardiologists: Pets boost heart health

    For instance, animals should be kept away from high-risk patients and areas, such as newborn nurseries. But Mary Lou Jennings, coordinator of the animal-assisted therapy program at Phoenix Children's Hospital, says animals may be allowed to visit immuno-comprised patients if they are severely depressed.  In those cases, dog handlers follow special infection-control protocols and visits are held outside the patient's regular room. "A visit with a dog can do so much to elevate mood and help them put up with their treatment," Jennings says (McKinney, Modern Healthcare, 6/6 [subscription required]).

    The takeaway: Providers should follow best practices, such as training handlers on infection control when bringing animals into the hospital for therapy visits, according to a new set of recommendations.

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