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Owning a Dog While Going Through Cancer

Picture of our dog ollie

While our dogs bring great joy to our lives, there is no question that having a canine companion in a home is a lot of additional work. Dogs require regular activity and grooming. Most breeds shed, meaning additional cleaning is required to keep the home looking spic and span. Of course, owning a dog means accepting a certain amount of noise in the house whether it is from barking, panting, or even the occasional whining. While these added chores are not a huge inconvenience compared to the benefits associated with dog ownership, they become more of a challenge when an owner is undergoing cancer. When a family member is receiving treatment for cancer, living with a dog’s habits and needs can become far more difficult, making it hard to be patient with a pooch’s unique quirks. Still, with some adjustments, a dog can be a great comfort throughout the process. What are some of the challenges dog owners face while going through cancer? 

The Benefits of Dog Ownership for Those with Cancer

There are many benefits to dog ownership, and those extend to people who are undergoing treatment for cancer as well. Having a cherished pooch close by is a great source of comfort, particularly for those succumbing to extreme bouts of nausea and fatigue.

Here are some of the top benefits people with cancer receive from owning a dog:

Early cancer detection
Since dogs possess a much more acute sense of smell than our own, they are able to detect the presence of disease in the human body far sooner than we are. With olfactory senses up to 1,000 times more potent than that of a human being, dogs are often able to identify the genetic markers of cancer simply through smelling the breath or urine of their owners. Since early detection is critical to survival, this can help an owner to seek medical treatment in the beginning stages of the disease which could save their lives. 

Improved overall health
Research suggests that owning a dog is a significant factor in more optimal heart rates and achieving and maintaining a blood pressure reading in the normal range. This could be attributed to the additional exercise engaged in to help keep a dog in top notch shape.

Stress relief is also an important part of fighting cancer. Studies show that maintaining close proximity to a pet and even the simple act of stroking a dog’s coat helps to release endorphins, a chemical which helps to combat stress and improve a person’s outlook. 

Enhanced mood
Many people who suffer with cancer experience depression. Since many  cancer patients must spend time at home alone fighting their disease, it becomes all too easy to begin to feel hopeless and alone. Since dogs are both loyal and intuitive, they prefer to remain near to their owners when it is apparent they are not feeling well; whether the illness is physical or emotional. This close contact helps to improve mood and alleviate the darkness that can descend during cancer treatment.

A sense of support
Since family members have to work, people undergoing cancer treatment often have to spend a lot of time alone. Having a dog ensures a constant support system which can help alleviate feelings of loneliness.

Dogs are also excellent listeners, providing a needed sounding board for people who are hurting.

Increased mobility
Many cancer patients experience a loss of physical strength and require assistance with fulfilling their daily tasks. Professionally trained service dogs can provide help with simple chores such as maintaining the ability to walk during the rigors of chemotherapy or radiation treatment as well as retrieving items which are dropped or lost. Many dogs can also be trained to perform routines such as turning lights on and off as needed and opening and closing doors. 

An incentive to exercise
Though activity may need to be reduced due to fatigue and nausea experienced during cancer treatment, getting out in the fresh air can be a great help. Walking a dog is an excellent way to promote physical fitness which is vital to continued recovery.

Cancer treatment robs people of energy; however, it is a well-known fact that even a small amount of exercise can alleviate the amount of fatigue experienced on an ongoing basis by as much as 50 percent. Though lengthy walks may not be possible, even five minute walks taken several times a day can have great benefits for both a dog and his owner.

The Problems Faced by Dog Owners Suffering with Cancer

When undergoing treatment for cancer, adjustments must be made when it comes to recovering from the disease while still providing the care a beloved dog needs. Here are several different problems those suffering with cancer often face when it comes to caring for their best canine pal: 

Dogs and common cancer treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy
Since chemotherapy and radiation are essentially poisons intended to kill the cancer cells found within the body, many pet owners are concerned about whether or not it is safe for them to continue to have a dog in their home while they undergo cancer treatment. Since common cancer treatments affect not only the bad cells but also the good ones, some dog owners worry that their immunity may be so low that they could become susceptible to illnesses and bacteria brought into the home by their pets.

For the most part, owners undergoing radiation or chemotherapy pose no risk to their dogs. However, the same is not always true when applied in reverse. As a general rule, dogs that dwell indoors and that are up to date on all vaccinations are likely to pose very little threat to cancer patients so long as proper precautions are observed. However, it is not recommended that someone suffering with cancer obtain a new pet during this time.

The best means for a cancer patient to avoid infection or illness transmitted through a pet is by reducing the dog’s accessibility to places where he could become an agent to harbor harmful bacteria. There are several means through which an owner could obtain an infection from their pets. These include bites and scratches, contact with infected urine, feces, saliva, or vomit, and sometimes even touch. Frequent hand washing can help eliminate the spread of harmful pathogens and are an important frontline defence when undergoing treatment for cancer. Another critical strategy includes avoiding areas where germs are known to linger such as litterboxes, public dog parks, pet stores, and boarding kennels.

During treatment for cancer, it is best to avoid any licking from a dog as well as play which could lead to scratches, accidental bites, or tearing of the skin. Punctures are an easy portal for infection to set in. Should rough play lead to a break in the skin, it is important to keep the wound completely covered until it has healed.

Since urine and feces are also a common breeding ground for bacteria which could lead to infection, those suffering from cancer should only  handle these materials with gloved hands. If this is not possible, it may be necessary to ask for assistance with picking up and disposing of any dog waste materials to prevent contact with any potentially harmful substances during times of low immunity.

Loss of physical strength
Picture of Amy in the hospitalWhen a dog owner is suffering with cancer, there are still basic tasks that must be performed to keep their canine sidekick contented and well. Unfortunately, cancer treatments are known to cause loss of energy and nausea, making it far more difficult to have the stamina for tasks such as walking the dog. In addition to this; when physical strength begins to wane, it can become quite easy for a dog to pull his owner off their feet, causing painful injuries to a body that is already hard at work battling disease.

Many cancer patients opt to hire a dog walker during this time. Having outside assistance can ensure that the dog receives the exercise he needs while keeping the owner safe from accidents that could occur while their reserves of strength are low.

Keeping up with cleaning
Unfortunately, dogs continue to shed whether their owner is ill or well. Dog hair accumulates quite quickly if not kept up with on a regular basis which can cause a rapid deterioration of air quality and can lead to feelings of discouragement as a result of the mess. An easy solution to this problem is to regularly brush the dog. Brushing on a daily basis only takes a few minutes of time but will remove the vast majority of dead hair in a centralized location for easy disposal. This cuts down on the amount of hair shed into the home environment, reducing the amount of cleaning that is necessary.

However, many cancer patients suffer with far too much nausea and fatigue to commit to a schedule of brushing. For them, it may be a wise idea to consider hiring someone to do some light cleaning once or twice a week to help keep on top of the shedding problem.

Dealing with noise
Many cancer treatments increase sensitivity to noise. Unfortunately, dogs bark, and some of them like to bark a lot! This can wreak havoc with an owner’s health and well-being as sleep is a critical component of battling cancer to achieve wellness.

For cancer patients who have dogs that love to make noise, it may be a good idea to seek the help of a family member who can take the dog for a walk, car ride, or a day of fun at a doggy day care to allow for a few precious hours of sleep.

Loss of income
Most people who require treatment for cancer are no longer able to work. Some may qualify for disability insurance; however, these funds constitute only a small portion of their former income, making it very difficult to make ends meet. This is particularly difficult for single parents or those who have only one revenue stream in a home.

Loss of income means belt tightening is necessary. For some families, this may mean that keeping their beloved pooch is no longer financially viable, a heartbreak no dog owner ever wants to have to face.

For most families struggling with the effects of cancer on their lives, it becomes necessary to ask for help. Whether that help comes from other family members, close friends, or even a local church or charity, people are often more than willing to pitch in and help when they are made aware there is a need. Students looking to earn a little extra spending money are often willing to walk dogs or do some light housework for a reasonable fee, making them an affordable option for those undergoing cancer treatment.

Can Owning a Dog Help with the Healing Process?

While it cannot be denied that there are benefits to dog ownership for those struggling to overcome cancer, can we go so far as to say that owning a dog can assist with healing? Though we cannot definitively say that the companionship of a dog is a cure for cancer, we can conclude that the love of a cherished dog certainly establishes the right framework for the healing process.

Here are a few ways dogs help cancer patients to be primed for healing:

Dogs promote feelings of relaxation.
Time spent with a cherished family pooch helps to promote a sense of calm and peace. This is a type of balm which can help to soothe the pain of dealing with a disease that ravages both the mind and body, encouraging sleep and rest.

Caring for a dog provides a welcome distraction.
For many people, having another living being to care for provides a distraction from the mental and physical fatigue of dealing with cancer. Though the pain does not disappear, the act of doing something for another helps to keep the mind engaged in something different, providing a sense of relief if only for a short time.

Dogs open up the door for more social opportunities.
When someone is struggling with cancer, it can become too easy for that person to isolate themselves. Social interaction can help with the healing process. Having a dog provides owners with the opportunity to become more social in small, manageable ways such as short visits to the dog park, walks, or even a visit to the vet or pet store. These snippets of social activity can help improve mood which is an integral component of healing. 

Can you still own and care for a dog while undergoing treatment for cancer? Though adjustments will need to be made, Fido can actually be a help during the healing process.

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