Coping With Pet Care During Treatment

Author: Carolyn Vachani, MSN, RN
Last Reviewed:

For many people, pets are part of their family. Our pets give us unconditional love and support. Research has shown the benefits of pets – just petting a dog can lower a person’s blood pressure. Pets can lessen stress, anxiety, loneliness, and depression, and can help you be more physically active. All of this can be a big support to you during cancer treatment.

There are some things you will need to consider when caring for your pet(s) while getting treatment for cancer. Treatments can make you more at risk of getting an infection. Your pet(s) can be a source of infection. How you care for your pet(s) may need to change to lower the risk of infection and protect your health.

Start With a Visit to Your Veterinarian

Your pets should see the vet at least once a year. Keep your pet’s vaccines up to date, and use medications or collars to prevent fleas and ticks. This will help your pet to stay healthy and lessen its chance of an infection. Tell your vet about your illness and concerns about infection. They can talk with you about any germs or infections that could cause problems for you.

Keep your pet clean and their nails short to prevent scratches or cuts on your skin. If you can’t do it on your own, ask your vet or a reputable groomer to help you. If your pet is coughing, sneezing, has diarrhea or vomiting, has a poor appetite, or loses weight, take them to see the vet. If possible, do not board your dog at a kennel or take them to doggy day care due to the risk of kennel cough.

Tips for Keeping You and Your Pet Safe

  • Tell your care team about any pets in your home.
  • Handwashing is the best way to prevent illness and infection when around other people. The same holds true when it comes to pets. Wash your hands with soap and water regularly.
  • Do not allow your pet to drink from the toilet. Keep the lid closed. If you are receiving medications to treat your cancer, there can be traces of this in your urine.
  • If you are taking medications at home for your cancer (chemotherapy, hormone therapy, etc.), be sure to keep it out of reach of any pets or children.
  • Do not play roughly with your pet as this can lead to cuts or scratches on your skin. If you do get a scratch from your pet, clean the area well with soap and water and cover it with a bandage to protect the area. Keep an eye on the area and notify your provider if the area becomes red, swollen, has pus, or you have a fever.
  • If you are bitten by your pet, or any animal, call your provider. You will likely need antibiotics or other treatment to prevent an infection. (This is true even for people who are not immunocompromised!)
  • A common injury is falling or tripping over a pet. Be careful when walking a dog or ask someone else to walk them for you especially if you are not feeling well. Be careful around the house and pay attention to where your pets are.
  • Cats and dogs can pass on germs to people by licking their faces/mouths. It is best to avoid this while you are getting cancer treatment.
  • It is best for you and your pet(s) to avoid stray, unknown, and wild animals while going through cancer treatment. These animals may not be up to date on vaccines and can carry germs that could be a problem for you. If possible, keep your pets from wandering outside where they could eat or be bitten by wild animals or rodents, which can carry diseases.

Handling Pet Waste

  • If possible, have someone else clean up dog poop or vomit, and clean the cat’s litter box, bird cage, or other animal waste.
  • If you do not have someone to help with this task, be sure to wear gloves and wash your hands well with soap and water after.
  • Keep any litter boxes or pet cages away from food prep areas. Wash your hands well before preparing meals. 

Special Circumstances

  • If you have had or will have a bone marrow or stem cell transplant, talk with your care team about your pets. There are more risks in these cases and therefore more restrictions.
  • Certain animals are more likely to carry infections that can spread to people. These can include reptiles such as lizards, turtles, snakes, frogs, and iguanas.
  • If you care for fish, be sure to wear gloves when cleaning the tank.
  • Birds such as parrots can carry a few harmful bacteria that can cause serious illness in humans. These bacteria can be spread in the air to immunocompromised people who handle bird droppings. Have someone else clean your bird’s cage regularly outside to limit the germs from being released into your indoor air. If you must clean the cage, wear gloves and an N95 mask and wash your hands well with soap and water after.

With the right planning, there is no reason your pet can’t be a part of your cancer care team. Ask for help caring for your pet if you need it. Sometimes, when we aren’t feeling well, having our pet snuggle up alongside us is just what we need.

References

ACS. (2020, February 1). Caring for Pets During Cancer Treatment. Retrieved January 18, 2023, from https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/low-blood-counts/infections/safety.html 

CancerCare. (2019, June). Caring for Your Pets When You Have Cancer. Retrieved January 18, 2023, from https://www.cancercare.org/publications/390-caring_for_your_pets_when_you_have_cancer 

Centers for Disease Control. (2019, October 28). Birds Kept as Pets. Retrieved January 18, 2023, from https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/pets/birds.html 

LLS. Pets and Cancer: How to Care for Yourself & Your Furry Friends During Treatment. Retrieved January 18, 2023, from https://www.lls.org/article/pets-and-cancer-how-care-yourself-your-furry-friends-during-treatment 

MedlinePlus. (2020, October 25). Pets and the Immunocompromised Person. Retrieved January 18, 2023, from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003967.htm

Overgaauw, P. A., Vinke, C. M., van Hagen, M. A., & Lipman, L. J. (2020). A one health perspective on the human–companion animal relationship with emphasis on zoonotic aspects. International journal of environmental research and public health17(11), 3789.

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