Published by Communications and Public Affairs (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338
July 28, 2004
Researchers explore disease potential of therapy dogs
Researchers at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College are studying whether there are health risks associated with dogs visiting hospitals and nursing homes to boost spirits and improve health.
Beyond the marked therapeutic benefits for patients and residents, little is known about therapy dogs, said Prof. David Waltner-Toews from the Department of Population Medicine. He is conducting the research with Prof. Scott Weese, Department of Clinical Studies, and Sandra Lefebvre, a veterinarian who is working on a master’s degree in population medicine.
“There are almost no studies on the risks involved with these visitations,” Waltner-Toews said. “We want to avoid the potential situation where health care officials say ‘get the dogs out of here’ when there is no evidence that they’re actually a health risk.”
Dogs are a particular concern, because they can act as carriers of pathogens from one human patient to another, and carry zoonotic diseases (those that can pass from animals to people, and vice versa) such as infections from pathogens like Salmonella and Group A Streptococci.
“The problem lies in the fact that dogs can carry disease and still look healthy,” said Lefebvre. Dogs can also pick up bacterial strains that originate in hospitals and transfer them to the people in the community on a day-to-day basis.
To this end, Lefebvre has been investigating the potential for disease transfer from humans to dogs. Although it’s believed people generally pose a greater risk of transmitting disease to others, zoonotic diseases haven’t been studied very much in therapy dogs.
"We’re particularly interested in hospital populations because there are many immunocompromised people,” she said. “We want to see if the potential exists for dogs to pick up diseases from humans and spread them to other people.”
The researchers want develop more stringent protocols for therapy dogs and help raise awareness in the veterinary community that therapy dogs should be watched very closely for potential zoonotic disease symptoms.
Already, they have surveyed organizations that run dog visitation programs, including St. John’s Ambulance, Therapy Dogs International and the Humane Society. Participants were asked about the requirements for a dog to be entered into a therapy program and how they identify dogs that pose potential human health risks.
Existing therapy dog protocols dictated by Canadian hospitals and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention — such as keeping animals parasite-free, clean and well-groomed, and maintaining up-to-date vaccinations — are only recommendations. But Waltner-Toews said they’re being used by many therapy dog programs. Along with Andrea Ellis of Health Canada, he has written a layperson’s version of these guidelines, entitled Good for Your Animals, Good for You.
The study’s next phase will be to test therapy dogs’ medical histories and to determine general level of health. Lefebvre also plans to perform a follow-up study where therapy dogs are tracked before and one year after they’ve visited a hospital and compared to similar dogs that have never visited hospitals.
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