Introduction: Previous studies have shown that apparently healthy animals participating in Animal-Assisted Interventions (AAI), including Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT), can carry and have the potential to transmit potentially zoonotic pathogens to people, particularly in health care settings (Lefebvre et al., 2006; Lefebvre et al., 2008; Lefebvre et al., 2009). There is a lack of information regarding therapy animal hander adherence to infection control practices in the AAI literature. Virginia Tech Helping PAWS (Pet Assisted Wellness Service) is an AAI program based out of the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine (VMCVM). The purpose of this study was to evaluate and assess therapy animal handler infection control practices within this population.
Methodology: A survey was conducted of the 40 currently registered therapy animal handlers designed to assess knowledge, attitudes, and perceptions regarding risk-tasking and risk-reducing behaviors that affect infectious disease transmission in AAI settings. Perception of risk of infectious disease risk to the animal, the handler, and the people being visited in typical AAI settings were also assessed.
Main Results: A majority (70%) of respondents expressed they had no concerns regarding infectious disease transmission in AAI settings. Handlers expressed greater concern about themselves acquiring a disease while visiting, such as the flu, than they were concerned about their animal transmitting or acquiring a disease. Despite current policy and information provided in the mandatory therapy handler education in this organization, none of the respondents reported that the people being visited always used hand sanitizer before and after visits.
Principal Conclusions and Implications for the Field: Strict adherence to infection control practices and hand hygiene are paramount to mitigate risk of zoonotic disease transmission, particularly for AAI/AAT in healthcare settings. Based on the results from this study, infectious disease control practices in the therapy animal handler education process needs to be strengthened. Similar studies should be performed in other AAI organizations in order to determine the level of adherence to currently recommended practices and potential need for improvement in infectious disease control policies and/or education.