Pet Companionship During the Cancer Journey

CURE, CURE® Summer 2021 Issue,

Having a pet to care for may motivate patients to exercise and be positive when undergoing cancer treatment.

Pet companionship — regardless of the animal — can mean a lot to people, especially during turbulent times in their lives such as receiving a cancer diagnosis and undergoing treatment. It is common for patients to show photos of their pets to nearly everyone and treat them similar to their children. Pets can play an integral role in patients' lives.

For patients with cancer, pets can also motivate them to exercise and bring positivity to their lives.

“Sometimes taking care of a pet offers certain demands, and sometimes they can be a challenge, but many patients do talk about the positive aspects (of pet companionship) and how having a pet pushes them to be more active and also brings some joy to their lives,” said Dr. Aminah Jatoi, an oncologist and the Betty J. Foust, MD, and Parents’ Professor of Oncology at Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science in Rochester, Minnesota, in an inter- view with CURE®.

The benefits of pet companionship during 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. Researchers aimed to assess the benefits and potential negative effects of pet ownership in these patients, such as who would care for a patient’s pet if their cancer worsened, for example.

“It really surprised me and ... surprised everybody else on our team. What we learned was that it wasn’t a sense of worry,” Jatoi said. “In fact, the majority of people who were part of that study said that they had contingency plans for their pets. They had plans in place (for) if (patients) didn’t do well (from their) cancer ... which made me think that if it is a source of stress, people have cared so much about their pets that they’ve made it so that their pets would be taken care of. ... I think it really showed that pets mean an awful lot to people who have cancer.”

The type of pet a person has — dog, cat, lizard, horse or other animal — may not indicate the benefit one may obtain from their companionship, and Jatoi noted that not every person will be suitable for a pet.

“It’s probably very person-specific,” she said. “There are probably some people for whom having a pet is just not the right thing to do. You certainly don’t want to figure that out the hard way and then have to give up on that pet.”

For patients who enjoy the companionship of a pet but cannot have one because of their living arrangement or other circumstances, some institutions including Mayo Clinic have pet therapy programs. Jatoi mentioned a former patient who was depressed from a prolonged hospital stay and wouldn’t speak much to the staff. With the help of a dog named Jack, who also has a book written about him, Jatoi said this patient became a new person.

“I remember the first day after (Jack) entered that room, the whole ambiance ... changed,” Jatoi recalled. “The drapes were open. The patient was smiling. He was so much more interactive than he had been, and I know Jack made a huge difference.”

Jatoi said oncologists don’t typically ask about patients’ pets during visits or treatment.

“I think the message there is that we, as cancer health care providers, maybe don’t focus as much on pets and what they mean to patients as we probably should,” Jatoi said.

That doesn’t mean that all oncologists don’t ask about pet ownership. Jatoi recalled a now-retired doctor who would make notes about things that were very meaningful to patients, which was often their pets. He would go as far as to include the pets’ names so he would remember for the next visit.

“If it meant a lot to (patients), it meant a lot to him. We probably don’t do that enough,” Jatoi said.

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