Finding Stability

Cancer Treatment and Your Furry Family Members

Keeping your pet during cancer treatment is not only possible, it may be good for you. There are some rules you need to follow, but studies have shown that your furry companion is actually helpful to your health.
Keeping your pet during cancer treatment is not only possible, it may be good for you. There are some rules you need to follow, but studies have shown that your furry companion is actually helpful to your health.

During cancer treatment, it’s important to take the best possible care of yourself, including following your oncologist’s recommendations for your physical health. But attention to your mental health is important, too. For many, pets are truly family members, and everyone in your house likely recognizes them as such. According to the American Cancer Society, you may be able to keep your friend close during cancer treatment. Keeping your pet depends on a variety of factors related to your health and the type of pet you have.

Type of Treatment

Cancer treatments affect the immune system in different ways. Some procedures, such as stem cell transplants, are a significant challenge to the immune system and animals may affect your risk for complications due to infections upon your return home. When you are undergoing chemotherapy, you risk getting infections easily, but when chemo stops, the threat usually subsides. Surgeries for cancer may not have as great of an impact, but your oncologist and surgical teams will be able to advise you on your risk.

Age and Size of Your Pet

Another consideration is the size of your pet. A large, heavy or energetic pet may be difficult to hold when you are not feeling your best. If you had invasive procedures, the animal should be kept away from you so you don’t risk rupturing sutures or displacing temporary medical equipment. A puppy or kitten may be prone to scratching or biting, which puts you at risk for infection. It’s also extra important to take your pet (or having your caregiver take them) to the veterinarian on schedule to avoid introducing new infections into the home. If you don’t have one but are interested in getting a pet, hold off as most doctors advise against it during this time.

Pet Care

An indoor pet can be kept cleaner than one who has access to the outdoors. Outdoor pets can bring in pests and diseases. You should stay away from animals who are not yours — you don’t know how healthy they are, even if they don’t look sick.

When undergoing treatment, you should not let your pet lick you. Germs can be transferred by saliva. Let someone else take over daily care of the animal while you don’t feel your best. Cleaning a litter box, grooming, cleaning up vomit or other pet accidents and bathing a pet can be taxing and put you at risk of infection. Wash your hands after coming in contact with your pet, even if you have worn gloves. You should not clean fish tanks or reptile living quarters.

You may be able to walk with your dog sometimes, but you should take another person along who can help clean up after the pet. Depending on your stage of cancer treatment, getting outside and taking a walk can be a great way for you to get some low-impact exercise. If your dog is hard to handle during strolls, let someone else hold the leash and enjoy their company as you go.

Allergies

If you are already allergic to your pet in some way, this condition may get worse. It’s important that your home is kept meticulously clean when you are undergoing cancer treatment anyway, but pet dander can present an additional danger now. It is best not to allow your pet to sleep or nap with you. You should always let your doctor know about any pets in your household, or any pets that you regularly come in contact with. They may have specific recommendations for you, especially if you have allergies.

This may seem like a lot of rules, but if you love your pet, it worth it to follow them. In a New York Times article, journalist and cancer survivor Suleika Jaouad speaks to the welcome distraction that a furry friend can provide, and her doctors even suggested that caring for a dog might be therapeutic. Be sure to consult with your care team to determine how to spend time with your pet as you undergo your treatment.

Click here to see how UVA uses pet therapy to put smiles on its pediatric patents’ faces.

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Kimberley Sirk
Kimberley Sirk