Victoria Puzo is a licensed clinical social worker at CancerCare. She received her master’s degree in social work from Adelphi University. She is the online support group program manager at CancerCare, where she provides supportive counseling to people coping with cancer, caregivers, and those who have lost a loved one to cancer.
There is extensive research showing the positive effects pets have on their owner’s emotional and physical well-being. This is especially true when people experience any major life stressor, including being diagnosed with cancer. However, there are many challenges that come along when a pet owner is diagnosed with cancer, including caring for their pet both financially and physically.
CancerCare created resources for pet owners with cancer to help them cope with these challenges. This will help lessen the burden on pet owners with cancer and allow them to continue to benefit from the pet-owner relationship during their treatment. Here are some key things pet owners should know about caring for their pets while being treated for cancer.
How pets help people with cancer
Anyone who owns a pet will tell you that their pet provides comfort and unconditional love, especially during times of stress or crisis. Pets often sense when their owner is sad or hurting, and they will instinctively lay beside their owner, lick their hand, or stay near them to help them feel better. It’s often said that going through cancer is a lonely experience, and a pet provides much-needed companionship to those who feel isolated after their cancer diagnosis. Even the simple act of petting an animal can help lift a person’s mood and ease feelings of depression, anxiety, and loneliness.
But aside from providing emotional comfort, scientific studies have also shown that the presence of a pet can help regulate heart rate, lower blood pressure, and shorten recovery times. Additionally, owning a pet might help people with cancer stay physically active. A pet owner might feel more motivated to get outside to walk their dog, for instance, leading to more regular physical activity. Doctors often suggest patients stay active when possible during their treatment to maintain a healthy body weight, reduce fatigue, and aid in recovery from surgery and treatment.
Caring for your pet during your cancer diagnosis
Cancer and its treatment can be expensive, which means caring for your pet can also become more challenging. Patients often experience a loss of income due to their inability to work during treatment or limited disability coverage. But pets need care just like we do. They need food, doctor visits, and sometimes medication or surgery. It’s important to keep up with your pet’s vaccines and checkups for their health and for yours.
So how does a person with cancer keep up with their pet’s care? The first thing to do is to talk with your veterinarian. They might have suggestions or offer programs for low-income pet owners. You can also reach out to local animal hospitals or animal rescues that offer free or reduced-cost programs.
It’s also important to keep up with your pet’s daily care, including feeding on a schedule, going on walks, playing with them, and doing regular grooming. If you aren’t able to lift heavy bags of food, take your dog for a walk, or clean out the litter box, consider asking a friend, family member, or neighbor for help. Or, if you are struggling to pay for dog walking or pet food, call local shelters or rescues that might have programs to assist you.
Remember that pets thrive when they have a daily routine and physical activity. When their routine is interrupted or they aren’t active enough, they might start to act out and misbehave. If you can maintain a routine during your diagnosis, it will help your pet stay healthy and prevent bad behaviors from forming. Try to plan ahead and have someone to care for your pet if you’re going to be out of the house during long treatment days or extended hospital stays.
Considerations for your own health
Many pet owners worry that their pet might make their health worse if they have a compromised immune system, which can lead to a higher risk of infection. Consider telling your veterinarian about your cancer diagnosis, so they can give you tips on how to keep yourself and your pet safe and healthy during your treatment.
One suggestion is to avoid bites and scratches by keeping your pet’s nails trimmed. Another suggestion is to avoid any kind of rough play that might accidentally lead to a scratch or bite. Even a minor scratch can turn into an infection and cause major health problems. And if you are scratched, be diligent about cleaning it with soap and water or a wound cleaner such as peroxide.
You might also consider asking someone else to clean your pet’s litter box or cage. This will prevent you from being exposed to bacteria that could be harmful to you. If you must do this cleaning yourself, wear gloves and thoroughly wash your hands afterward.
Communicating with your health care team
Tell your doctors that you have a pet as soon as possible. They will be able to tell you what precautions to take depending on your diagnosis and the kind of treatment you are receiving. For example, someone who is having a bone marrow/stem cell transplant might not be able to be around pets at all for the first few months, so you might have to arrange for a pet sitter or for boarding. You should bring a list of questions to your next appointment and list your concerns about having a pet during treatment. You might want to ask, for instance, if you can continue to walk your dog, clean the litter box, or have your pet sleep in your bed with you.
Pets are an important part of our lives, and the good news is, you can maintain your special relationship with your pet after a cancer diagnosis. Just be sure to use some of the tips you’ve learned here, build a community of support, and look into the additional resources shared below to make both yourself and your pet as safe, comfortable, and happy as possible.