Scott Weese, DVM, DVSc, Diplomate ACVIM

Tuesday, January 20 • 10:10-1:00, Marriott

Animal-assisted activity (AAA) programs include animal visitation programs to hospitals, nursing homes, hospice facilities, and other human health care programs. While visitation has psychological and emotional benefits for resident individual, residents may be susceptible to zoonotic pathogens and infectious diseases harbored by visiting animals. Additionally, pathogens harbored by facility residents can be passed to the animals, and these animals could serve as carriers to the general community. Unfortunately, regulation of such groups is inconsistent, and evidence-based practices to prevent infectious disease transmission may not be present. An Ontario screening study of AAA dogs underscored the need for such guidelines, as one or more potentially zoonotic organisms were isolated from approximately 80% of dogs. Another study suggested that AAA dogs might have increased methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and Clostridium difficile colonization rates, which contributed to their role as infectious disease conduits between health care facilities and the community. There are no standard, consistent guidelines evaluating disease prevention among AAA programs, and many available guidelines do not address the true risk components. Pathogens of particular concern include Salmonella, MRSA, vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus, extended spectrum β-lactamase- and cephalosporinase-producing Escherichia coli, and C difficile. A recent study describes international guidelines that were developed through a joint effort of veterinarians, physicians, animal visitation groups, government agencies, and infection control groups and should be rigorously implemented in all AAA programs.

This study underscores the importance of the veterinarian as an advisor and public health officer to the beneficial AAA associations. Veterinarians must comprehensively educate themselves on the risks for infectious disease transmission to patients in health care facilities and convey such information to owners of AAA pets and directors of such programs. Veterinarians must also be aware of apparently healthy AAA pets as carriers of certain infections between the health care setting and the community. It is the responsibility of the veterinarian to exact stringent public health and infection control rules and to appropriately assess the temperaments of AAA pets.