More on Quality and Safety

Therapy dogs good for patient's recovery, but carry risk of MRSA

Patients can pickup harmful MRSA bacteria from touching dogs but stricter adherence to hand washing among solutions, study says.

Beth Jones Sanborn, Managing Editor

A study from researchers at Johns Hopkins who worried that therapy dogs might be contributing to the spread of MRSA and other harmful bacteria showed that, in fact, they were doing just that. The study also showed keeping these visits from canine companions purely paws-itive boils down to simple cleaning protocols and adherence to hygiene practices that eliminated the risk.


One such threat, methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus bacteria also known as MRSA, carries a high risk of mortality and can damage the heart if it enters the bloodstream. It is tied to thousands of deaths a year and is a particularly threatening condition for those with weakened immune systems.

On the other hand, visits from therapy dogs have proven to be a highly positive force in a patient's recovery and hospital experience, especially for children. Visits from the healing canines have been shown to ease anxiety and sadness, help lower blood pressure and provide sorely needed positive interactions that help boost patient morale. So it is important to find methods of reducing the risk of patient harm that don't include eliminating the visits.


The study, which was reported on by Time magazine, looked at 45 children who interacted with the lovable dogs through either petting, hugging, feeding or playing over the course of 13 visits in 2016 and 2017.

Researchers found that among children with no MRSA, about 10 percent of the samples taken from the kids after they interacted with the dogs contained the bacteria. About 40 percent of samples taken from the dogs also contained MRSA. Results also indicated that the more time the kids spent with the dogs the greater their chances of ending up with the bacteria on them.

Researchers believe that the dogs came into the hospital generally clean of MRSA, and then picked it up from patients and others.


"Our hypothesis is it's really person-to-person transmission, but it happened through contact with the fur," Megan Davis, a Johns Hopkins public health researcher and veterinarian, told TIME.


Hospital protocol states that the dogs must be washed within a day of a visit and be checked for wounds or other health issues. And the patients who interact with them are supposed to use hand sanitizer, but that measure wasn't "strictly enforced," said one researcher.

Researchers eventually asked the dog owners to wash the dogs with a special shampoo before their visits and had the dogs patted down with disinfecting wipes  every five to ten minutes during the visits, which they said eliminated the risk of spreading the bacteria.


These are protocols hospitals would do well to adhere to in order to prevent the spread of dangerous bacteria to patients and even staff.

Twitter: @BethJSanborn
Email the writer: