How dogs can improve the lives of cancer patients

How dogs can improve the lives of cancer patients

Cancer is a scary diagnosis to receive, and battling the disease itself can be even more frightening. Here’s how dogs can help lessen your stress and fear on the road to recovery.

Living with a chronic illness like cancer is no easy feat. Feelings of discouragement and fatigue are not uncommon, and some days the thought of leaving your bed may feel unrealistic. If only there was a companion that’s scientifically proven to help make life easier for cancer patients! Here’s the good news — there is.

As it turns out, dogs aren’t just great family pets. Research has shown that they can have a hugely positive impact on their person’s health, both mental and physical. If you or someone you know is battling chronic illness, a furry friend might be just what they need to feel better and smile more.

​​How dogs improve patients’ mental health

Do you ever feel a warm, happy glow when petting a dog? It’s normal! One study showed improved mood and decreased anxiety in college students after both watching and interacting with dogs, with those interacting with dogs seeing the greatest improvement.

So we know that contact with animals can improve young people’s mood, but what about cancer patients, who tend to have a lot more health concerns on their minds? That’s been studied, too!

Antoher key study showed that, despite declines in physical and functional well-being over time, cancer patients experienced significant increases in social and emotional well-being when making daily animal-assisted visits during their treatment. Essentially, even as patients’ physical health was deteriorating, their mental health was thriving with the help of dogs and other animals.

How dogs improve patients’ physical health

We’ve established that interactions with dogs can improve mental health, but what about physical health? The thought of an animal improving physiological symptoms may seem unrealistic initially, but research has actually proven it to be true.

Research has shown that animal-assisted therapy can help reduce pain and improve blood pressure for a variety of hospitalized patients, especially those battling cancer. This is in part due to the fact that contact with dogs increases endorphins, a natural pain-relieving hormone.

In addition to the pain relief that contact with dogs can offer, dog ownership prompts us to get outside and move. Dogs need regular exercise to stay healthy, which motivates dog owners with cancer to keep their bodies moving.

4 special roles dogs can serve for cancer patients

Aside from just having a dog as a companion pet, there are several ways that dogs can be integrated into patients’ lives in an impactful way. Let’s explore some of the most common options.

  • Emotional support dogs: Medical professionals who treat mental health issues often prescribe emotional support animals to help people deal with anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges. This can be incredibly useful for cancer patients, who often struggle with their mental health.
  • Therapy dogs: Animal-assisted therapy is a common tool used to help people suffering with chronic illness. Usually, these dogs have been trained to comfort patients and ease the challenging emotions involved in cancer treatment.
  • Service dogs: Service dogs are specifically trained to help people living with certain disabilities accomplish tasks and get through their days. This may include helping someone walk or notifying others when someone is having a seizure. These dogs are legally allowed nearly anywhere, including places dogs usually aren’t allowed.
  • Cancer-sniffing dogs: Believe it or not, certain dogs have such an amplified sense of smell that they can identify cancer cells before they’ve developed too much. Specifically, beagles, German shepherds, and Labrador retrievers have identified cancer cells.

How to stay healthy as a dog parent with chronic illness

When the immune system is weakened, it’s important to be extra cautious when interacting with animals to prevent zoonotic disease transmission. Here are a few tips for staying hygienic and healthy when interacting with dogs.

Wash your hands after all contact

Whether you’re petting your furry friend, picking up after them, or touching their food bowl to feed them, you should get into the habit of washing your hands afterward. Dogs aren’t the most hygienic animals, and any contact with their fur or something they’ve licked can put you at risk of infection if you don’t wash your hands regularly.

Set hygienic boundaries

As much as you may want to cuddle up with your pup in bed, this habit also poses the risk of disease transmission. When you’re sleeping, your dog may lick you or roll onto the pillow next to you — both habits that could expose you to their viruses and bacteria.

Take regular trips to the vet

Check with your vet to make sure your pet is up to date on all of their vaccinations. This will keep the chances of them contracting diseases to a minimum, which also protects you as the owner. Vets can also identify many illnesses before they become too developed, taking that stress and anxiety off of owners.

Ways to make dog care easier as a dog as a cancer patient

Cancer treatments coupled with declining physical health can make any task feel like a mission. Some days, you may not feel up to the task of taking your dog out for a stroll or entertaining them. Here are some ways to make your life easier on the days you need to take some time to rest:

  • Hire a dog walker or sitter: Dog sitters don’t just have to be hired when you go on vacation — they can also step in when you’re feeling too ill to care for your furry friend. This will give you peace of mind that your dog’s needs are being met, even if you can’t be the one to meet them right now.
  • Lean on family support: It can be challenging to accept the help and support of loved ones, but some days it’s the best thing to do for your health. If balancing dog ownership with other daily tasks like cooking becomes challenging, delegate tasks to family members and friends who have some space in their schedule.
  • Invest in an automatic feeder: Automatic feeders will dispense a certain amount of your pup’s kibble at specific times, so that they aren’t over-eating all at once. This way, you don’t have to worry about getting up several times per day to add food to their dish.

Battling cancer is scary and exhausting, but with a supportive community (and perhaps some supportive animals), you don’t have to go through it alone. For additional insights about how dogs can impact patients’ lives, including what therapy vs. service dogs can legally do, check out Asbestos’ guide to cancer patients and dogs.

And don’t forget to subscribe to Animal Wellness Magazine today for more tips on caring for your pets and living life to the fullest with an animal companion.

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