Animals in Nursing Homes: Are Health Risks Being Addressed?

April 18, 2018
Amanda Carrozza

Amanda Carrozza is a freelance writer and editor in New Jersey.

Allowing pets in nursing homes undoubtedly has health benefits for residents, but it seems the associated risks are not being addressed in most facilities.

A recent survey study published in the Journal of Gerontological Nursing found that most long-term care facilities in Ohio permit animals on their premises. And rightfully so, as the therapeutic effects of animals visiting nursing home residents are well documented.

Led by Jason W. Stull, VMD, MPVM, PhD, DACVPM, an assistant professor at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, the survey also delved into an aspect of animal therapy in these facilities that is not covered as thoroughly—the potential health risks to residents. In fact, this study uncovered large discrepancies among the facilities regarding health protocols and education related to animal visitation programs.

Having researched the benefits and risks associated with animal therapy, such as in children with cancer, Dr. Stull recognized a gap in data pertaining to how animals were being utilized in long-term care facilities. He felt this niche deserved attention particularly because older adults and immunocompromised individuals are at increased risk for animal-associated infections.

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Without a great deal of data, Dr. Stull explained it was difficult to pinpoint exactly what types of health risks are most prevalent, but bacteria being passed from animals to humans should be a chief concern. There has been 1 instance, he noted, of a Campylobacter infection being transferred from a young dog to a resident in a long-term care facility.

“There are a lot of possibilities out there, but more research is needed,” he said.

Study Findings

For this study, 95 administrators from unique nursing homes in Ohio completed an online survey of 106 questions that addressed the perceived benefits and risks of animals as well as current policies. Animals were permitted in 99% of the participating nursing homes, with dogs (95%), cats (85%), birds (71%), fish (55%), and farm animals (40%) being the most common visitors.

Of the facilities that permitted animals, 93% reported having an animal policy, yet important gaps were identified frequently in the policies’ content. Similarly, while the vast majority of respondents noted positive benefits of having animals visit residents, 75% did not report health and safety concerns.

Room for Improvement

Although the facilities that permitted animals were very excited about their programs, the protocols in place varied greatly and respondents displayed limited knowledge and policy-directed guidance regarding safety concerns for residents. “They were very enthusiastic about including pets, but didn’t understand the complexity of disease,” Dr. Stull said.

With varied levels of preparedness among respondents, Dr. Stull suggested 3 key steps practices could take to improve their current program protocols and reduce potential health risks.

1. Establish a Committee

Dr. Stull suggested that facilities establish dedicated committees to encourage discussions about their programs. Ideally, each group would include facility staff and residents as well as a veterinarian or other animal health professional.

It’s also important to consider how animals will be used. “These animals should be thought of similar to the way you think of medicine,” Dr. Stull said. There are certain safety measures in place when prescribing and distributing medication, an understanding of who will benefit, and knowledge about potential risks. Similar guidelines should exist for animals.

2. Define Areas of Development

The group tasked with overseeing the facility’s animal program should also make it a point to identify gaps in the current program and consider some easy-to-implement modifications that could reduce health risks. “Simple changes could have a major impact,” Dr. Stull said.

One place to start is the complimentary suite of tools created by the team at The Ohio State University a result of the study findings. Some of the components are educational—reptiles can carry Salmonella, animals over age 1 are less likely to bite and scratch, for example—while others provide details on how to structure an agreement between the facility and animal handlers.

3. Engage in Ongoing Discussions

The third step, Dr. Stull said, is making sure the facility engages in a continual dialogue about this topic to uncover what aspects of the program are thriving and which could benefit from additional improvements.

The Veterinarian’s Role

“I think veterinarians may not recognize that they play an important role in this conversation,” Dr. Stull said.

Survey results revealed that many program directors simply didn’t know who to reach out to regarding animal visitation protocols or what questions are most important to ask. But these are skills veterinarians possess, he said. And as such, they have the ability to help facilities improve.

Dr. Stull hopes more veterinarians will take a proactive approach to educating themselves on this topic. In doing so, they could have a tremendous impact on how long-term care facilities manage these programs—ensuring the health and safety of both residents and their animal guests.