Cancer and pets

Wednesday 23 May 2018

'The difference between friends and pets is that friends we allow into our company, pets we allow into our solitude'. (Robert Brault)

As I write my blog today, I realise that I can feel my ‘bias’ ticking. I have lived my life, full of the presence of animals, and for me…the richer for it. However, If you’re not an animal lover, look away now – as I’m going to dwell on the benefits (and risks) of having pets, alongside cancer treatment.

The benefits of owning a pet (or being owned by a cat) are well documented. Research shows that dogs are capable of love, and that stroking or cuddling a cat or dog releases oxytocin. Oxytocin is often known as the ‘love’ hormone, as it can help with bonding, help relieve depression, and is generally has a ‘feel good’ factor. Pets also give us a purpose – a reason to get up in the mornings, get some exercise, and form a routine, when chaos reigns. As I type this, my dog is laying across my feet, ensuring I don’t move far without his knowledge – a loyal companion. Pets don’t judge us on those days where we feel ill – and are not interested in our outward appearance – more on what makes us tick (and possibly if we know where the tin opener is…).

Stroking the family pet can reduce blood pressure, and reduce our sense of isolation – particularly if living alone, perhaps grieving for a lost loved one, and being confined at home. You may be aware of Pets as Therapy, where animals and their owners visit hospitals, hospices, nursing homes etc, offering their companionship as therapy. In a hospice I worked for many years, we even had a couple of dog ‘volunteers’ – Charlie and Daisy Dog, who had their own badge, and special place on certain days in Day Hospice.

Tips about pets when you're on cancer treatment

When diagnosed with cancer, and on treatment, there are concerns about hygiene, and managing our pets. You may worry that you can't have the usual close contact with your pets, and that can feel an added stress with everything else is going on. Here are a few tips I’ve gathered together, to help manage the pet situation, if you or a family member have low immunity:-

  • It’s probably not a good time to get a new puppy or kitten . You’ve so much going on, and your immune system may well be compromised by treatments etc. The baby animals are more prone to play ‘rough’, scratch or nip – and as they’re generally dashing around, can be a bit of a ‘trip hazard’ as they move fast. Older animals (over a year) are usually a bit more settled, and if their vaccinations/flea/worming programme is up to date, then there’s less risk to your health too.
  • Avoiding bites and scratches as much as possible – and ensuring you monitor any scratches/bites for redness, infection, swelling etc, is important. Your immune system may be weakened, and for people at risk of lymphoedema (swelling of limb after surgery and radiotherapy to lymph nodes), this can be a potential for cellulitis (infection). Keeping their claws trimmed regularly will also help reduce the scratch risk.
  • I have read that, In rare circumstances, dogs with kennel cough can spread this condition to humans with a weakened immune system. Having the kennel cough vaccinations kept up to date is a wise move – and avoiding kennelling them during your low immunity times would be helpful too.
  • Logical steps, like wearing disposable gloves and always washing your hands after picking up pet faeces and cleaning litter trays etc, makes sense. In fact, in an ideal world, pass this task on to another family member if possible. Bird cages and fish tanks, need regular cleaning, and the same precautions taken.
  • Dogs are fond of licking, so try and discourage them licking round your mouth or any open sores.
  • Good hygiene and regular hand washing helps prevent many infections, and life still has to continue.

What if I go into hospital?

There is sometimes the worry about what to do, if you live alone and have a pet which needs care should you go into hospital – or in terminal illness, and the concerns about what happens to your beloved pet when you’re no longer here.

Ideally, family and friends will help out in a crisis. However, this isn’t always possible. I see that if you are admitted to hospital or is placed in local authority residential care or nursing home your local authority has a duty to take care of your pet, although you may have to pay for any costs of temporary shelter for your pet (RSPCA).

You may find short term pet sitting services that can help, if you're feeling unwell, or less mobile whilst on treatment, and need a hand. Petpals, Borrow my doggy and Dogbuddy, for example. Your local vet may also know of local support for pets whilst you're unwell.

There are a number of other websites offering support – People and Pet Advocates, for example, ‘are establishing an infrastructure of volunteers to support people by sharing the care of their pets during a health crisis and difficult times.’ For elderly and terminally ill people, the Cinnamon Trust is a national charity for people in their last years and their companion animals.

Animals bring us much joy, and are very often a huge part of our family. When cancer comes into our lives, uninvited and at the most inconvenient of times, animals can be the stress reliever – the panacea – the sense of normality.  They're also here for the family, including  partners, carers, children and those who are equally affected. A good walk with the dog, can be as beneficial as a therapy session.  Our pet can provide unconditional love and support, when everything around us may feel to be out of control.

Our online visitors often tell us us how much having a pet gives a focus, something beyond cancer, and brings out our nurturing side. Even on the darkest days, our pets bring humour, love and relaxation. I would love to hear how your pets have helped you, and welcome feedback...

Warm wishes


Updated June 2020


Pet care     Macmillan Cancer Support

Is it safe to keep my pet whilst I'm being treated for cancer?   American Cancer Society

Pets as Therapy

Care Act 2014 -  and the pets of people taken into hospital  (PDF)   -    RSPCA

People and pet advocates

The Cinnamon Trust

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