8 Benefits of Dogs for Cancer Patients

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Picture a dog curled up next to a cancer patient who just returned from a chemotherapy session. Now imagine that dog has a superhero cape around its neck.

Science has documented that dogs and other animals bring positive health benefits to patients battling cancer and other medical issues. Interactions with dogs have been shown to impact physical health by decreasing pain, lowering blood pressure, lessening fatigue and improving heart health. Dogs can also help reduce depression, anxiety and loneliness and encourage social engagement.

Whether the dog is a personal pet, a therapy or service animal or even a part of the medical research process, “man’s best friend” can make a difference in the lives of cancer patients. This post will explore the ways in which patients often interact with dogs, the benefits dogs bring and resources for adding canine support to your treatment plan.

Health Benefits of Dogs for Cancer Patients

Graphic of a woman posing with dog

Medical research has long explored how interactions with canines and other pets can impact our health. And science has proven that there are some true physical and mental health benefits behind those puppy dog eyes, happy tails and warm cuddles.

1. Dogs combat depression and anxiety, improving mood.

The challenges of cancer go beyond the physical. Cancer takes an emotional toll and often manifests in diagnoses of depression and anxiety. One study showed cancer patients who received animal therapy visits during chemo and radiation treatments had their moods consistently lifted in comparison to patients who did not experience the visits.​​

2. Dogs reduce pain levels.

Multiple research studies support the claim that therapy dog visits lead to significant pain relief for a variety of patients, but especially for those fighting cancer. Measured levels of catecholamines, hormones released due to stress, decreased while endorphins, hormones released as a natural pain reliever, increased.

3. Dogs create opportunities for exercise.

Caring for a dog requires ensuring that the animal gets plenty of exercise and fresh air. Naturally, this leads to lots of long walks and playtime. The physical activities you enjoy with your pet are a hidden way of incorporating exercise into your cancer care plan. Studies have shown a 40%-50% decrease in cancer-related fatigue for those who exercise regularly.

4. Dogs can help reduce blood pressure.

Discoveries of pain reduction and mood elevation as a result of patient engagement with dogs also revealed the lowered blood pressure of many of the patients. Cancer patients are at high risk of developing hypertension, so maintaining a regulated blood pressure is critical to ongoing good health.

5. Dogs can help decrease fatigue.

Fatigue claims the top spot as the most common side effect of cancer treatment. Cancer-related fatigue is not the same as traditional fatigue. Patients are more susceptible to fatigue sneaking up on them and it’s more challenging for them to recover from it. Regularly walking a four-legged friend can help reduce cancer-related fatigue levels for many patients.

6. Dogs help mitigate feelings of isolation.

The intensity of a cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment and care planning can quickly lead to a sense of isolation for many patients. A combination of pain, fatigue, depression and anxiety make it easy to feel overwhelmed and lonely as a result. The companionship a dog provides with their loyal presence can bring comfort. Having a dog look at you while you speak creates a sense of being heard, so you feel less alone. The need to walk them outdoors also encourages you to socially engage with the people you may come across instead of hibernating inside.

7. Dogs motivate participation in therapy.

The overwhelming nature of cancer and its treatments can scare some people away from pursuing or completing the actual treatment therapies. By adding a dog to the mix, you can create a sense of calm and decrease the intense anxiety swirling in your brain. Researchers assert that “the presence of an animal has been found to lower anxiety and motivate participation in therapy.”

8. Dogs encourage better communication with the medical team.

Communication with health professionals is vital to creating a promising health strategy. By calming patients and helping to de-escalate their anxiety levels, therapy dogs have been shown to promote increased communication with a medical team. Improved communication translates to better participation in therapy, which is important in achieving therapeutic goals.

How Dogs Can Help Patients

The roles dogs can play in cancer care

Canines can fill a variety of roles in the lives of cancer patients, from their in-home presence or in-hospital therapy visit, to the research dogs you may never meet.

Pets/Companion Animals

Recognized as “man’s best friend” for their loyalty, dogs are wonderful companion animals that love unconditionally and make excellent pets. They are always happy to see you and won’t care how you look, even when cancer treatments have taken a lot out of you.

Therapy Dogs

Therapy dogs work in partnership with their owners to improve the lives of others by visiting hospitals, schools, nursing homes and more. One researcher describes animal-assisted therapy as “a complementary medicine intervention, typically utilizing dogs trained to be obedient, calm and comforting.” As volunteers, they may engage with cancer patients to bring a smile to their faces and create a temporary distraction from the rigors of cancer care.

Emotional Support Animals

When treating mental health issues, medical professionals can prescribe an emotional support animal (ESA) as a form of comfort and support. They are typically used to address panic attacks and issues of anxiety and depression — all of which cancer patients have been known to face. ESAs could be any small animal, but dogs are one of the most common. A current or new pet can be selected for the role of your ESA as they do not require certification or registration, but you should aim for a calm and obedient dog.

Service Animals

Service animals are most often dogs. They are specially trained to handle certain daily tasks for a person living with a sensory, physical or mental disability. They may assist a patient with walking, alert a hearing-impaired person of a loud noise, carry groceries or alert someone to a medical crisis (such as a seizure). Service animals are legally allowed to accompany their patient/owner almost anywhere, even locations where other animals are not allowed, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Cancer-Sniffing Dogs

Due to a sense of smell estimated to be between 10,000 to 100,000 times greater than humans’, canines can detect the odor of cancer cells early in the disease’s progress. A 2019 study posited that trained beagles, who successfully identified lung cancer cells, could perhaps detect mesothelioma cancer cells by their scent in the near future. Dog breeds such as German shepherds and Labrador retrievers have also accurately recognized ovarian cancer and colon cancer cells, respectively.

Is It Safe for Cancer Patients To Be Around Dogs?

Statistics related to the dog pet population since COVID started and the number of people with a history of cancer

Generally, cancer patients can safely be around dogs. They should follow proper hygiene practices and avoid potential scratches or bites. Tell your medical team so they can advise you if something specific to your care plan would prohibit it. Precautions are especially important for those receiving chemotherapy due to their weakened immune systems.

Well-cared-for pets that live inside the home are the least likely to cause potential health problems. But it is possible for pets to pick up germs that may impact your health, even if the animal is not sick themselves.

The American Cancer Society suggests:

  • Proper handwashing after petting, feeding or playing with a dog is important to staying healthy.
  • Keeping dogs’ nails trimmed helps limit accidental scratches that could lead to possible infection.
  • Wear gloves when cleaning up your dog’s feces or urine, and wash your hands thoroughly afterward.
  • Avoid getting a new pet while battling cancer.

Resources for Adding Dogs to Your Care Plan

What therapy dogs, service animals and ESAs can and cannot do

Are you ready to add a canine companion to your cancer care plan? Or do you perhaps want to train your dog to be a therapy dog to support cancer patients? Resources to achieve these goals abound. Here are some good places to start once you’ve checked with your doctor.

Therapy Dog Programs

Many of the country’s top cancer hospitals provide access to therapy dogs. For example:

The American Kennel Club maintains an extensive list of therapy dog organizations across the country. It’s a great resource for finding some options in your area.

Service Dog Information

Requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) do not require service dogs to be registered or professionally trained. Due to the specialized nature of the animal’s responsibilities as a working dog, there are many service dog training options in the United States. Both for-profit and nonprofit organizations provide service dog training. Fees can run anywhere from free to over $25,000. Research the options that best fit your needs before deciding on the plan for you.

Note that after much abuse of the ADA’s guidelines, it is illegal to misrepresent a service dog in many states.

Emotional Support Animal Information

Although emotional support animals are prescribed by mental health professionals, the animals are pets and not considered working dogs. ESAs do not require any specialized training, as they offer simple companionship and cuddling to ease emotional stress. A letter from the prescribing medical professional can be useful in obtaining the limited legal accommodations available for an ESA, particularly when it comes to housing.

Overall, dogs have the proven potential to improve the quality of life for cancer patients. Consult your doctor to see if including a furry companion in your routine is right for you.

How dogs help humans deal with cance

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