Pet therapy - Are there any risks or factors to consider?
Before any animal-assisted therapy session is agreed upon, certain factors are always taken into consideration. These can include:
- Safety – for the animal and all people involved (injuries, such as a fall or bites and scratches, can happen if handled inappropriately or an inappropriate animal for the therapy environment is chosen)
- Sanitation and hygiene
- Possible allergies to certain animals, such as pet dander
- The possibility of patient possessive behaviours (i.e. a reluctance to part with an animal at the end of a session)
- The possibility of attachment problems and grief reactions
- The possibility that recipients will not bond with an animal at all – sometimes due to a lack of a frame of reference or level of curiosity
Since pet therapy is not necessarily whole-heartedly backed by science, there is a gap in the use of set standards for how animal-assisted intervention is conducted. Currently pet therapy sessions are conducted according to treatment and handling mechanics of those professionals involved, much of which is based on personal experience.
The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has yet to receive a report of illness or infection as a direct result of pet therapy in medically controlled environments. With that in mind, training programmes and proper animal healthcare is seemingly working well and not causing problems with using this form of health assistance.
Volunteers or owners of pet therapy animals will also likely incur costs of caring for their animal (food, veterinary care, housing etc.) in their personal capacity, and may need to factor in any potential damage to property their animal may cause during a session.
Pet therapy owners must also maintain open communication with treating healthcare professionals and gain a full understanding of certain behavioural possibilities in patients, especially those in institutions who may be inclined to harm an animal (intentionally or unintentionally). There have been reports of therapy recipients placing cats in a toilet or rubbish bin (garbage bin), and others do not appear too concerned about potentially harming an animal (i.e. running over an animals’ tail with a wheelchair). If possible harmful behaviours can be anticipated, they can be better avoided within a supervised session.