Routine veterinary screening of both resident and visiting companion animals is recommended for all nursing homes offering pet-assisted therapy.
There have been reports of pet therapy animals being carriers of disease organisms (bacteria, parasites) that have been transmitted to patients interacting with them. This is of special concern when the people interacting with the animals are immuno-compromised or otherwise more vulnerable to infection.
Some people have allergic reactions to some companion animals. This should be considered before the introduction of pet therapy, particularly in a setting where multiple people may be exposed.
These uses have been tested in humans or animals. Safety and effectiveness have not always been proven. Some of these conditions are potentially serious, and should be evaluated by a qualified healthcare provider.
Quality of life
Pet therapy may benefit both patients and caregiving staff in a hospice setting. In one study, the presence of a dog was found to encourage staff-patient interactions, ease patient-visitor relations, and improve staff and patient morale. The preferred interactions with the dog were those that had a relaxing or comforting effect on the human. Not all patients, however, may be interested in contact with an animal.
In the institutionalized elderly, there is evidence that pet therapy may reduce depression and blood pressure, reduce irritability, reduce agitation and increase social interaction. In Alzheimer's disease there is evidence that the presence of a companion animal may increase social behaviors such as smiles, laughs, looks, leans, touches, verbalizations, name-calling, or others.
There is evidence from one well-designed trial that pet ownership may have additive value in patients with hypertension who are taking conventional blood pressure medication.
Invasive medical procedures
Evidence is unclear about the extent to which pet therapy may be of value in reducing anxiety and depression in invasive medical procedures. A study of institutionalized psychiatric patients being treated with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) had inconclusive results. More studies are needed to determine the value of pet therapy in preparing people for invasive or unpleasant procedures.
Loneliness in the elderly
Pet therapy has been shown to reduce loneliness and depression in residents of long-term care facilities, particularly in people with a prior history of pet ownership. The presence of a pet has also been found to lead to increased verbal interactions among residents.
There is evidence that the presence of a pet dog among psychiatric inpatients promotes social interactions. In people with schizophrenia, there is evidence that pet therapy may lead to improved interest in rewarding activities as well as better use of leisure time and improved motivation. There is also evidence of improvement in socialization skills, independent living, and general well-being. In a large, well-designed study, hospitalized patients with a variety of psychiatric disorders were found to have reduced anxiety after a single session of pet therapy. For most, the benefits were superior to those of a session of regular recreation therapy.
Nutrition (Alzheimer's patients)
There is evidence from one well-designed study that animal-assisted therapy in the form of a fish aquarium in an institutional care facility for people with Alzheimer's disease may improve nutritional intake, improve weight gain, and reduce the need for nutritional supplementation.
Based on preliminary study, canine visitation therapy (CVT) may be an effective adjunct to traditional pain management for children. More high-quality studies are needed to make any firm recommendations.