Returning to Therapy Animal Visiting During COVID-19

May 19, 2020

The past few months have been an extraordinary time for the world, including the field of therapy animal visitation. The risk presented by COVID-19 meant that broad social isolation and closures of most facilities were needed to help minimize spread of the disease. And this meant therapy animal visits had to temporarily stop in most areas.

Now, as states and municipalities start to ease some of the restrictions, we have to determine how best to restart visiting programs. This has been a time of significant stress and trauma, and the effect of the human-animal bond is especially vital in helping people. Therapy animals have an important role to play as we return to more typical activities. But it’s also crucial that resuming therapy animal visitation is done in a safe and sustainable way.

All therapy animal visits depend on the comfort of both the team and the facility, as well as local directives. If a team doesn’t feel ready to return to visiting, or a facility is not ready to re-open to volunteers, or if local directives don’t allow non-essential personnel, of course everyone should wait to start visiting again. The information below is intended to provide guidance for teams and facilities who are ready to start therapy animal visits again and are able to do so based on conditions in their area.

Emphasizing Safety

When facilities welcome Pet Partners therapy animal teams, they are welcoming teams that meet the highest standards for client safety, at any time. The Pet Partners infection prevention guidelines are designed to minimize the risk of spreading all unwanted germs, including COVID-19.

Our standard infection prevention protocols for registered Pet Partners teams and visiting include the following:

  • Hand hygiene for handlers as well as everyone who touches the therapy animal, both before and after touching.
  • Grooming and bathing for all therapy animals no more than 24 hours before visits.
  • Use of non-shared barriers when therapy animals are placed on client beds or chairs.
  • Following posted precautions and not entering any rooms with posted airborne, droplet, or contact precautions.
  • Animals must be in good health to participate in visits, including being free of parasites.
  • Handlers must also be in good health to visit, and may not visit if they have any potentially contagious health issues or have been exposed to a contagious disease.
  • Raw meat food and treats are not permitted, since therapy animals often interact with people whose immune systems are not optimal.
  • All Pet Partners therapy animals (when appropriate for the species) are required to be vaccinated against rabies, consistent with recommendations by SHEA for animals in healthcare facilities.

For more information on our infection control practices, please see our blog post that goes into detail about this important topic.

These standard practices required by our Therapy Animal Program mean that our teams bring a high degree of infection mitigation with them on every visit, so they are already positioned to address many of the infection control needs that will be required to start therapy animal visits again.

Our standards of practice provide a framework for any facility or program to incorporate therapy animals safely and can help facilities as they prepare to start therapy animal visitation again.

Special COVID-19 Considerations

Even with our standard practices in place, there are special considerations surrounding COVID-19 and therapy animal visits. We’re offering the following guidance to our teams and the facilities where they visit:

  • Handlers and facilities are responsible for understanding and following the guidance of their local government. Different states and jurisdictions may have different guidelines for resuming pre-COVID activities that could have an impact on therapy animal visits.
  • The CDC recommends that people wear masks in public, and Pet Partners recommends following the CDC’s guidance, in addition to the preferences of each individual facility.
  • We recommend prudent and appropriate social distancing during visits. Therapy animal visits assume some level of contact between clients and the therapy animal team, and handlers need to maintain physical nearness to their animal as a critical component of YAYABA™ (You Are Your Animal’s Best Advocate) and animal welfare. When this level of contact and proximity isn’t needed, teams should maintain appropriate distances from other people.

Bringing Therapy Animal Visits Back

In addition to our guidance on how to safely resume visiting, Pet Partners is taking steps to make therapy animal teams available to their communities as circumstances permit. We’re providing support and resources to our currently registered teams so they can return to visiting when they feel it’s safe for them to start again, and possible to do so in their communities. We’re also working with our volunteer leaders and local groups to recruit and train new therapy animal teams to help meet the expanded need for therapy animal visits in the coming months.

If circumstances don’t permit in-person therapy animal visits at particular locations or facilities just yet, facilities can still take advantage of animal-related engagement to bring the benefits of animals to their clients and staff.

Animal-Related Engagement

This includes working with their local therapy animal teams to hold virtual visits through recorded or live videos. Pet Partners has a Facebook group for virtual visits; handlers can post videos and other media they’ve created of their pets, while facilities can share the content with clients and staff to stay engaged with therapy animals.

Schools, libraries, and parents may be looking for ways they can keep students engaged with learning as the school year wraps up and during the summer. Our We Are All Ears reading project has children set goals for reading to pets and can encourage regular reading—it’s a great supplement to other learning and can keep kids reading during summer break. It can also bridge the gap until Read With Me visits are available again.

We’re also actively working to add more qualified teams to our Animal-Assisted Crisis Response program. This pandemic has included trauma and extreme stress for many people. Having trained and credentialed teams available to provide emotional comfort and support to people will help strengthen communities as we move to the next phase of this situation.

Pet Partners Animal-Assisted Crisis Response

There are many in our communities who could benefit from the love of a therapy animal during these challenging times. We all have a responsibility to ensure interactions with therapy animals promote health and safety through rigorous infection prevention. We’re ready to work with facilities, therapy animal teams, and communities to ensure they can bring the power of the human-animal bond to people again, as safely as possible.

coronavirus COVID 19 statement

Facilities interested in our full guidelines for resuming therapy animal visits can find that information on our Pet Partners at Your Facility page. 

Pet Partners handlers can find the guidelines in the Resource Library in the Volunteer Center.

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