Bringing pets to visit patients in hospitals has a wide association with improving the wellbeing of patients, especially children. But little research has been done on these so-called "animal interventions," and researchers from the University of Adelaide report there is a "major gap" in scientific knowledge in this area.

"Since the 1980s, when the term 'human-animal bond' was coined, it started to become taken for granted that animals would bring about an improved sense of wellbeing for people in healthcare or palliative care," said Anna Chur-Hansen of University of Adelaide's School of Psychology.

"However, the scientific world has done such a poor job of researching this field that no-one can truly say what the benefits are, how they work, or whether such a situation causes problems or distress - or the exact opposite - for the animals themselves," she said.

Writing in the journal Anthrozoös, Chur-Hansen and her collaborators highlight the disparity of research that conclusively proves that these sorts of pet-patient interaction are truly beneficial.

"The assumption is that these programs are beneficial - and from the little evidence available they are likely to be - but no-one has yet fully assessed the range of issues associated with the human-animal bond in the healthcare setting," Chur-Hansen said in a statement.

"For example, is it better to have your own pet come and visit, or to have someone else's pet visit you in hospital? What risks are associated with having animals on site amongst children, and what problems does it cause for disease control? What is the impact on the animals themselves, and is having animals in a hospital or hospice inappropriate for people of some cultures? These are among the many questions being left unanswered.

"Our hope is that by better understanding what's really happening, we'll be able to develop guidelines that will lead to best practice - guidelines that could be used by animal support groups and healthcare professionals alike," she said.