Pets and Coping with Cancer Care

For staff and patients at Comprehensive Cancer Centers, having a pet can help raise spirits and improve well-being. For patients, in particular, a pets can often be the best part of a challenging day. It’s also not uncommon for patients in clinics getting treatment to share photos of their beloved pets to staff and others also being treated, causing smiles and elevating moods.

According to the National Institutes of Health, an estimated 68% of U.S. households have a pet. And recently the NIH conducted research to see how pets affect people during illnesses. Results of the study showed that having animals around can decrease levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol and also lower blood pressure. Other studies have found that animals can help with loneliness, increase feelings of support, and boost moods.

The effects of pets for those going through cancer treatment have been a focus of research for years, including one study reporting results of a survey completed by patients with cancer during chemotherapy published in the Journal of Cancer Education in 2010.

The study focused on a total of 309 patients who completed the survey. Patients had a median age of 59 years (range=19, 91). One hundred seventy-three (56%) were women. Most (61%) were receiving chemotherapy with noncurative intent. One hundred seventy patients (55%) were pet owners. Seven of these lived with only their pets. Dogs were the most common companion for the group as a whole (72%), followed by cats (51%); other pets lived in fewer than 10% of households and included horses, birds, and others. Many in the study reported benefits from having pets during their challenging times.

Having a Pet Will Likely Improve Your Health

A significant part of Comprehensive Cancer Centers’ outreach efforts focuses on reducing risks for illnesses, such as cancer. Reducing risks for cancer, and all diseases and ailments can come from lifestyle choices. Having a pet is one lifestyle choice that appears to have more benefits than drawbacks. A few highlights from pet-ownership studies include:

  • Depression – Pet owners are less likely to suffer from depression or severe depression.
  • Blood Pressure – People with pets have lower blood pressure in stressful situations than those without pets. People in a study with borderline hypertension adopted dogs from a shelter and their blood pressure declined significantly within five months.
  • Serotonin & Dopamine – Playing with a dog, cat, or other pet can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax.
  • Heart Disease – Pet owners have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels (indicators of heart disease) than those without pets and heart attack patients with pets survive longer than those without.
  • Doctor Visits – Pet owners over age 65 make 30%  fewer visits to their doctors than those without pets.

Health benefits for pets comes from animals beyond the usual furry suspects like dogs and cats. Often having other animals is necessary for those with allergies. Rabbits, hamsters and other pocket-sized companions are good options for those who still want a soft and fuzzy animal to cuddle with at home. Birds have been shown to keep their owners mentally active with fun social interaction. And even a simple fish in a bowl has been found to provide benefits in reduced muscle tension and lower pulse rates.

Therapeutic benefits for pets largely focus on how they fill the human need for touch and interaction, which can quickly sooth people who are stressed. Pets also encourage being active, with long, healthy walks and even just taking an animal outside that provide a regular reason to move around.  This is important for people with cancer, as moving around is important.

Another helpful part of pet ownership for those with cancer is how they add structure to the day. Even a simple pet like a fish needs to be fed each day. Adding simple routines to daily schedules has been shown to help reduce depression, anxiousness and stress.

If you have cancer and do not have a pet, but want one, find out what the animal requires and if you, or your family or friends will be able to help out. As noted, if time and resources are limited, and you still want a pet, starting with something small and not requiring too much care is a good place to start.

Comprehensive Cancer Centers Can Help

Physicians at Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada provide a variety of options for cancer care including chemotherapy, radiation therapy, as well as clinical research for the treatment of cancer. For a complete list of clinical research studies currently being conducted at Comprehensive, click here. To schedule an appointment with the team at Comprehensive, please call 702-952-3350.


The content is this post is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of qualified health providers with questions you may have regarding medical conditions.