Pets in nursing homes bring both benefits and risks

(Reuters Health) - Pets that visit nursing homes or live there with a resident can be a benefit to all, but administrators also need to consider possible risks like injuries and illness and develop policies to avoid them, researchers say.

In a survey of nursing homes in Ohio, nearly all the facilities allowed pets of all kinds to visit, but they rarely had policies or protocols to protect the residents as well as the animals, the study team reports in Journal of Gerontological Nursing.

“Pets are an incredibly important part of people’s lives, and when people move into nursing homes, they may want to have that companionship still,” said lead author Dr. Jason Stull, an assistant professor of veterinary medicine at The Ohio State University in Columbus.

“When pets visit, it can relieve stress and anxiety and promote activities such as walking and caring for animals,” Stull said in a telephone interview. “The hard part, though, is understanding the health risks that also come with animals.”

The researchers surveyed 95 administrators from nursing homes across Ohio to understand which types of nursing homes allowed pets, the extent of animal visitation, whether any pets were owned by the staff or the facility itself, and whether there were policies in place to address risks.

They found that 99 percent of the responding nursing homes permitted visiting or resident animals, including dogs, cats, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians, miniature horses, rodents such as hamsters and rats and farm animals such as goats and pigs.

Of facilities that had animals on the premises within the past 12 months, nearly all said animals had visited a specific resident, 71 percent had socialization programs involving animals and 59 percent had physical therapy programs involving animals.

Nursing home administrators noted the physical, social and emotional benefits that patients experienced, mentioning that residents seemed happier and calmer with staff after spending time with animals.

Although 93 percent of facilities reported having an animal policy, most of these policies had gaps regarding the health and safety concerns such as infections or diseases that pets may carry. Most policies designated caregivers for the animals and had vaccination requirements. Most policies also excluded animals that recently had diarrhea, vomited or appeared sick.

Less than half of the nursing homes had policies regarding hand hygiene, procedures for injuries such as animal bites or staff training around pets. One facility reported a cat had been mistreated during a visit, yet no facilities reported an infection linked to animal visits.

“It seemed like many facilities didn’t discuss whether some animals were the best fit to meet the needs of the residents,” Stull said. “That’s a missed opportunity for education about disease risks and health concerns.”

Some species, particularly amphibians or reptiles, may carry and shed bacteria such as salmonella, which could cause infections in those who don’t have strong immune systems.

“Many facilities were proud of the way they included animals, such as having turtle races on the floor,” Stull said. “That’s a great way to engage residents, but the disease risk could be higher.”

Stull and colleagues created a brochure ( to help facilities keep residents safe while enjoying pets.

Future studies should also analyze the ways that certain categories of animals - such as service animals, therapy animals and emotional support animals - can best help nursing home residents. Each role may require a different set of regulations, said Dr. Deborah Linder of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in Boston, who wasn’t involved in the study.

“Human-animal interaction can be such a positive experience, but it has to be done carefully so it does not turn negative,” Linder said in an email. “There are organizations that do an excellent job encouraging animal handlers to consider ‘both ends of the leash,’ such that everyone can have a safe and enjoyable interaction.”

With patients who are cognitively or physically impaired, in particular, staff may need to take extra precautions in ensuring animal interactions are safe. In some assisted living facilities, for instance, stuffed animals and robotic pets may be healthier, safer and provide the same emotional benefits, said Dr. Evan Cherniack, director of geriatrics at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Miami, who wasn’t involved in the study.

“These patients may not be capable of interacting with a real animal,” Cherniack said in a telephone interview. “But these options may give them the same benefits without the risks.”

SOURCE: Journal of Gerontological Nursing, online April 2, 2018.