October is Adopt-A-Dog month. It’s a special month for me, as there’s not much I enjoy more than talking about my two furry “kids,” Samson and Sheba. Apparently I’m not alone: More than half of U.S. households own a pet, and many owners consider this animal a part of the family. Pets provide companionship, love, and humor but can they improve our health as well? Many scientific studies say yes. Pets have been linked to decreased blood pressure, lowered cholesterol, improved heart health, and reduced stress and anxiety. But what are the risks and rewards of having these unique members of the family around when someone in the household is diagnosed with cancer?
A cancer diagnosis can bring an overwhelming amount of change, and the steady, unconditional love of a pet can be a powerful comfort. A friend named Barbara recently told me how her dog Thaddeus took a special interest in her friend who was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Thaddeus visited Barbara’s friend frequently and would lie down next to her as she rested after treatments. While Barbara’s friend is now cancer-free, the bond between her and Thaddeus still runs deep.
I’ve heard many similar stories about animals’ sixth sense and their ability to comfort. Even cancer centers such as Mayo Clinic, Dana-Farber, and M.D. Anderson have recognized the therapeutic power of pets and implemented animal-assisted therapy programs. Some of the benefits of owning a pet during cancer include:
- Companionship Recovery from treatment might require a lot of time spent resting. Pets provide loyal company, without requiring the energy needed to have a conversation.
- Motivation to move Pets require care such as daily feedings, and many pets need to be taken on walks. Even a minimal amount of daily exercise can help minimize cancer side effects.
- Improved mood The goofy antics and unconditional love of a pet make it hard not to smile. In addition, contact with animals can decrease feelings of anxiety and stress, which in turn allows the body to focus more energy on recovery.
While pets can be a great source of support for a cancer survivor, it’s important to consider the risks of pet ownership during cancer. To make sure the situation remains beneficial for both the cancer survivor and the pet, certain precautions should be taken. Risks of owning a pet during cancer include:
- Infection Cancer treatment can weaken the immune system, making it important for survivors to avoid germs. Before a survivor begins treatment, pets should be examined by a vet and be up-to-date on all vaccinations. Cancer survivors with compromised immune systems should wear disposable gloves and wash hands after handling pets, or ask for help with chores such as scooping the litter box or picking up after a dog.
- Increased responsibility A cancer diagnosis can bring a schedule full of appointments and treatments, making it difficult to find the time to take care of pets. It can be helpful to line up friends to help or even hire a pet sitter to feed and walk pets on treatment days. It is also good to have an emergency plan in place in case there is a sudden need for hospitalization or travel.
Owning a pet is a large commitment and a personal decision, and everyone is different. However, if a cute fuzzy face isn’t enough to make you want a pet, maybe the health benefits are. I still remember how our family pet, Shadow, sat by my mother’s side as she recovered from reconstruction surgery after breast cancer. Our furry family members seem to know when something is wrong and have the uncanny ability to lift our spirits. Have you met a pet that has made a difference in the life of someone facing cancer?