Living with cancer is stressful enough without patients having to consider the possibility of giving up their beloved pets. Even people who are not ill will say that their pet gives them a reason to get up in the morning, to go outside for a walk, to prepare food at mealtime, or simply to enjoy their company. These benefits can be even more important considerations in the life of someone coping with cancer or other diseases. Researchers in the United Kingdom recently conducted an analysis of the role of pets in the lives of patients with advanced cancer.1

The researchers defined companion animal as any animal that is kept in a community for company, enjoyment, work, or psychological support.1 They estimate that 45% of families in the UK own a pet; these are mostly dogs or cats. In the United States, the statistic for pet-owning households is 70%; 69 million people share their homes with a dog and 45.3 million households have a cat.2

Many studies demonstrate the benefits of living with a pet. These researchers advise that living with a pet reduces psychological distress, isolation, and loneliness while increasing social supports and communication. Companion animals are proven to be beneficial for people with long-term or chronic medical conditions. However, their influence can change when the patient has advanced cancer or other life-limiting disease.1  


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For their study, the UK group recruited participants who were engaged with a charity in Northern Ireland that helps patients with advanced disease manage their pets. Participants also were recruited through social media advertisements. After assessing applicants, 3 women and 3 men were enrolled in the study; all of them had advanced cancer and reported having a deep and meaningful relationship with their companion animal.1 Although this exemplifies the human-animal bond, the researchers were surprised to find that in the cases they studied it had become a more significant human-like attachment. They described this bond as a protective relationship, a relationship which comprises 3 subordinate themes: unconditional positive attachments, posttraumatic growth, and expression of emotional consequences of illness.1

Unconditional positive attachments ensure that patients with advanced cancer feel an increased sense of safety and security within their relationships with their companion animal at a time when worsening cancer causes them to feel increasingly vulnerable and lonely.

Posttraumatic growth is the positive psychological change that can take place within a negative event. The participants found that their companion animal helped them stay positive during extremely unpleasant and difficult times. They would be encouraged by the warm presence of a loving pet or be cheered by their pet’s antics. Participants felt that their illness drew them closer to their pets and that often those animals were spiritually connected to them in some way.

Expression of emotional consequences of illness was another positive effect of having a companion animal described by the participants. They could complain to their pet when they were depressed or in pain, for example. “This offers a unique emotional support that provides a stress buffer against the psychological consequences of the advanced illness,” explained the researchers.1

Another key point was positive behavioral activation. The participants had to care for their pets, which led them to experience the psychological benefits of feeding their pets or getting out and about. They had to create a structured routine to accomplish daily pet care, leading to a mutually positive relationship. However, despite the positives, the participants also had negative feelings. They were concerned about what would happen to their companion animals as their cancer advanced, when they reach the point of not being able to care for their pets. This thought led to feelings of separation anxiety, fear of loss, and their becoming aware of their own mortality.1

Support for Pet Owners With Cancer in the US

A number of organizations in the US support pet ownership among patients with cancer. One of them, CancerCare, sponsors PAW: Pet Assistance & Wellness Program.3 It assists patients undergoing cancer treatment with the challenges of keeping their cat or dog at home, and has a number of fact sheets for pet owners and health care providers. PAW cites the importance of exercise for patients with cancer, and how having a dog helps patients accomplish exercise goals for both dog and human several times a day.

Walking with a dog is more social than walking alone and can often be a pathway out of loneliness. Having a pet can lower blood pressure and stress-responsive cortisol. Pet companionship also raises oxytocin levels, especially important for those undergoing difficult cancer treatments.3

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Cancer.net blog, “Taking Care of Your Pets When You Have Cancer,” written in conjunction with specialists at CancerCare, offers encouragement to patients to keep their pets while undergoing treatment for cancer.4 It provides a number of practical suggestions for patients who find it difficult to care for their pets physically and economically.

The American Cancer Society has a comprehensive section on their website devoted to patients with cancer and their pets. The site covers precautions for living with an animal and cancer, which pets could pose a safety risk for the patient’s health, as well as many good tips for protecting the patient’s health during cancer treatment.5

The medical community is increasingly aware of the importance of companion animals for helping patients who are ill. But this is not entirely new. Years ago even Florence Nightingale encouraged patients to keep pets. She wrote, “A small pet animal is often an excellent companion for the sick, for long chronic cases especially. A pet bird in a cage is sometimes the only pleasure of an invalid confined for years to the same room. If he can feed and clean the animal himself, he ought always to be encouraged to do so.”6

References

1. McGhee WRG, Dempster M, Graham-Wisener L. The role of companion animals in advanced cancer: an interpretative phenomenological analysis. BMC Palliat Care. 2022;21(1):160. doi:10.1186/s1904-022-01051-y

2. U.S. household pet ownership statistics. In: Pet ownership statistics in 2022 — 70 fun fur facts: Let’s take an international journey through the world of pet ownership! Lemonade website. Accessed October 17, 2022. https://www.lemonade.com/pet/explained/pet-ownership-statistics/#US-household

3. CancerCare Pet Assistance & Wellness (PAW) program. CancerCare website. Accessed October 17, 2022. https://www.cancercare.org/paw

4. Puzo V. Taking care of your pets when you have cancer. Cancer.net website. Published December 10, 2019. Accessed October 17, 2022. https://www.cancer.net/blog/2019-12/taking-care-your-pets-when-you-have-cancer

5. Caring for pets during cancer treatment. American Cancer Society website. Last revised: February 1, 2020. Accessed October 17, 2022. https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/low-blood-counts/infections/safety.html

6. Nightingale F.  Notes on Nursing and Other Writings. New York, NY: Dover Publications Inc; 1969.