Have you ever considered having your pet undergo the temperament testing and health checks needed to become a therapy pet? If so, this post is for you.

Consider that what we know about pet therapy has always been in the positive arena of what pets can do for hospitalized patients, the elderly, reading-challenged children, etc. There’s no doubt that the benefits are nothing short of astounding. It’s one area where pets undoubtedly shine. (Who can resist the very real, physiological pleasures of unconditional love?)

Yet very little has been reported when it comes to the health risks inherent to these inter-species interactions.

So says a recent paper in the JAVMA (Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association) on the issues raised by increased human-animal interactions in ever-popular pet therapy sessions.

Titled, “A veterinary perspective on the recently published guidelines for animal-assisted interventions in health-care facilities,” the paper takes on the milquetoast guidelines for appropriate screening and healthcare of these pets with a simple question: Are these guidelines based on science? And its answer: We need to know more before we can arrive at acceptable, science-based standards for therapy pets in human healthcare settings.

In my practice, I sign pet therapy paperwork on a regular basis. Pets arrive for their yearly checkups and I sign off on their continued good health and uber-pleasant demeanor so they can continue to provide the services their owners, the pet and the recipients of their goodwill rely on for full, meaningful lives.

It gives me great pleasure to do so. But I’ve got a few reservations stuck in my craw now that I’ve read this thoughtful paper. What considerations might I have missed in my exuberance to lend humanity some distinctly animal assistance?

Here are some issues it raises:

1-Are humans more at risk for their interaction with animals in pet therapy settings?

2-Are the animals similarly at risk of contracting human-originated diseases?

3-Are these animals typhoid Marys in fur coats? Might they be passing along hospital-borne illnesses to other clinical settings with their well-intentioned multi-hospital wanderings?

Ultimately, the paper urges us to increase our level of health surveillance of these pets for their own sake...and for their beneficiaries’ continued access to these therapy animals. It suggests that much more research is needed. And it obliquely recommends that until that’s achieved we proceed slowly, with an abundance of caution when therapy pets enter human healthcare facilities.

Though an intelligent reader might construe the paper as alarmist, anti-therapy pet propaganda on par with what the anti-animal human profession has often dished out, these are vets in the paper’s byline. And what they suggest is ultimately, as I read it, protective of animals.

Imagine a huge MRSA outbreak in a nursing home. We need enough research and tight enough guidelines to prove the beloved house cat isn’t to blame. The last thing we need, for the sake of these programs, is a backlash against them.