Are dental practices ready for therapy animals?

Pets have long played an important role in the American family. The human-animal bond is also well established in the medical field,1 but this concept is lagging behind in the dental field. This article describes the benefits of animal-assisted therapy (AAT), along with the risks and barriers of incorporating AAT into the dental office.

Research has shown that dogs can improve overall health by lowering blood pressure, providing comfort, and improving mood.1 Many of those who oppose AAT are concerned with infection control and the possibility of zoonotic diseases (infectious diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans under normal circumstances). A survey was conducted to identify the opinions of dentists and dental hygienists regarding the use of AAT in the dental office.2

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, state and local governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations that serve the public generally must allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas of a facility where the public is allowed. For example, in a hospital, a service animal would be allowed in patient rooms, clinics, cafeterias, and exam rooms. However, it may be appropriate to exclude a service animal from operating rooms or burn units where the animal’s presence may compromise a sterile environment.

Based on frequency of postings on social media, health-care facilities have recently shown an increased interest in therapy animals and facility dogs. In addition to lowering blood pressure and improving mood, animal-assisted intervention programs have also been shown to delay the onset of dementia.1 AAT is currently being used in elder-care facilities, hospitals, and mental health therapy sessions, but is less common in the dental field. If employed, AAT may be able to reduce anxiety and improve the dental experience.