Pet therapy programs have been expanding throughout the country, based largely on the increasing recognition that humans benefit from the human-animal bond. The human-animal bond is defined by the American Veterinary Medical Association as:
a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that is influenced by behaviors that are essential to the health and well-being of both. This includes, but is not limited to, emotional, psychological, and physical interactions of people, animals, and the environment.
While the IRS, in (PLR 201719018), has recently ruled “that a charity’s planned pet therapy program, which would bring trained therapy dogs to visit hospital patients and elderly nursing home residents, furthers charitable purposes under Section 501(c)(3),” that ruling does not consider or even mention public health concerns related to such programs.
“In support of its ruling, the IRS cited revenue rulings concluding that providing services to hospital patients and other individuals suffering distress in an effort to east that distress and provide them comfort furthers charitable purposes . . . [and] that activities designed to meet the special needs of the elderly may further charitable purposes.” See Pet therapy program is a Section 501(c)(3) charitable activity, IRS rules (citations omitted).
However, no matter how well intended and “charitable” these programs are, there are serious potential public health risks from exposure of elderly, sick, immunocompromised patients to zoonotic diseases that pets can carry and transmit. See, e.g., “Diseases you can share with your pets” previously discussed.
Those in the veterinary community understand these risks, as noted by Dr. Lucas Pantaleon, stating, the “[r]isk of zoonoses also arises with therapy dogs in human hospitals. The dogs go through screening but could bring zoonoses from the hospital back into the community.” See “Speaker: Animal hospitals must practice infection control” reported by Katie Burns, June 1, 2017.
Researchers at Tufts University recently published the results of a “survey of United States hospitals, eldercare facilities and therapy animal organizations revealed their health and safety policies for therapy animal visits varied widely, with many not following recommended guidelines for animal visitation.” See, “Could Therapy Animal Visitation Pose Health Risks at Patient Facilities?”, June 19, 2017.
The survey included “responses from 45 eldercare facilities, 45 hospitals, and 27 therapy animal organizations across the country on their existing policies related to animal health and behavioral prerequisites for therapy animals and Animal-assisted intervention (‘AAI’) programs.”
Alarmingly, researchers found that many programs had deficient preventive guidelines to at least minimize the potential exposure of zoonotic pathogens from pets to people, finding:
AAI programs have a potential risk of transmission of zoonotic disease—diseases spread between animals and people. This risk is especially high when health, grooming and handwashing protocols are not carefully used. Another potential risk could come from therapy animals eating raw meat-based diets or treats, which are at high risk of being contaminated with bacteria such as Campylobacter, Salmonella and Cryptosporidium. These pathogens may pose risks to both humans and animals, and especially immunocompromised patients.
Zoonotic disease transmission has also been reported in people contracting salmonella from backyard poultry, where almost one third of the 790 victims confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “are children younger than 5 years old.” See “Salmonella victims from backyard flocks more than double,” Food Safety News, July 14, 2017.
The human-animal bond benefits both people and animals, especially the elderly and children, and should be encouraged. However, proper protocols and controls should be in place to keep everyone healthy.