So You Want to Be a Full-Time Therapy Dog

If you and your dog make a great therapy team, and you’re willing to devote some time to it, you really have a lot of potential to help people. However, the more people you visit, the more uncertainty you bring to their health care regimen. Touching a dog that has previously touched a lot of people is a liability for someone who is already vulnerable to germs.

am sorry to say that hospitals are not perhaps as safe for sick people as you had imagined. Patients (and therapy dogs) that go in and out of the hospital are entering the lair of the antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Clostridium difficile is a famous one that tried to escape its notoriety with a name change in 2016, but it still goes by the nickname C-diff. It causes severe diarrhea in immunocompromised people (especially the elderly) that can ultimately be fatal. This can be carried temporarily on the fur and feet of a dog and can even take up residence in his gut without causing obvious illness. MRSA is another name you might recognize; it’s a very sturdy Staph organism that might succumb to the immune system (if you have a good one, that is) but proves very difficult to eradicate with medicines. It’s not unusual to find MRSA lingering furtively in the mouth/nose of health care workers and anyone else who spends time with hospital patients. Like, a therapy dog.

There are tests for C-diff and MRSA to see if your dog is an innocent carrier, but I don’t recommend them. These organisms come and go on their own schedule, and repeated testing would soon break the bank. In any case, it’s not smart to prescribe more antibiotics in an effort to “clear” them, since that’s what caused this problem in the first place. You’re better off shampooing the feet and anal area of the canine before and after visits, as well as discouraging certain types of behavior such as skin-licking and climbing up onto a patient or hospital bed. The patient should practice good hand hygiene after seeing you anyway, but especially if dog treats will be on the menu. Washing with water and soap beats sanitizer bottles, hands down.

Your vet can help you achieve the safest environment possible in and on your therapy dog by minimizing antibiotic use wheneverpossible. Any skin condition should be subjected to testing sooner rather than later to rule out ringworm and scabies (which are transmissible to human skin), but also to explore treatment options that don’t fuel antibiotic resistance. Shampoos and topical therapies are preferred to pills, as are immune system modifiers like probiotics, allergy therapy, and nutritional skin supplements. Pets with chronic dermatology problems or urinary tract infections have often been exposed to a lot of antibiotics, making them relatively bad candidates for a therapy job.

It sounds like a lot of responsibility, I know, but therapy dogs are unique powerhouse of pure goodness that can genuinely change the course of people’s lives, including the weakest and most desperate members of our society. This kind of pet care is undeniablymore labor-intensive for you, but the patients (and the planet) will appreciate it.

Dr. M.S. Regan