8 do’s and don’ts for pet owners during cancer treatment
Pets can provide emotional support, companionship and stress relief during cancer treatment. But cancer patients should exercise caution when caring for their pets. That’s because pets can pose certain risks, depending on the pet and the type of cancer treatment.
We spoke with breast medical oncologist Ajit Bisen, M.D., who offers this advice for pet owners during cancer treatment.
1. Speak with your care team before beginning treatment.
A good time to have this conversation is when your care team is planning your treatment, whether that’s chemotherapy or any treatment that is going to compromise your immune system. You should also share what kind of pet(s) you have and your level of involvement in the pet’s care.
2. Don’t let your pet lick your face.
Although pet kisses can be adorable, animal saliva can carry germs that cause illnesses. Avoid letting pets lick your face, especially your nose and mouth.
3. Keep your pet up to date on all vaccinations.
For your safety and their health, be sure to keep your pet up to date on all necessary vaccinations and preventive medications, such as heartworm and flea and tick. However, patients should avoid live vaccines for themselves. If a live vaccine is recommended for your pet, bring that to the attention of your care team.
Modified live vaccines are made up of bacteria or viruses that have been modified to make them less harmful and are used to help the build an animal’s immune system. A common example is modified live Bordatella bronchiseptica, a bacterium that causes so-called kennel cough in dogs and other animals. Though rare, this bacterium can cause infections in humans, too, posing a greater risk for immunocompromised patients.
4. Don’t let your pet sleep in your bed.
Pets tend to want to snuggle or sleep closely with their human, which could open the door to licking or accidental scratches. If your pet normally shares your bed, it’s best to have them sleep somewhere else while you undergo cancer treatment.
5. Take bites and scratches seriously.
Even if you think a bite or scratch is minor, it’s important to inform your care team right away. You may need to start on antibiotics to prevent infection. And depending on how suppressed your immune system is, you may need intravenous antibiotics or hospitalization. When wounds get infected, patients can develop sepsis, a severe infection of the bloodstream.
To avoid scratches, keep your pet’s claws trimmed, and avoid rough play.
6. Don’t pick up strays.
Though it may be tempting to rescue an animal you see on the street, it’s important to assess the risks involved. You don’t have any information on this animal – whether or not they’re up to date on vaccinations, sick or have underlying health conditions. Immunocompromised patients could get very sick from taking in a stray, so it’s not advised.
7. Do ask someone you trust to help with pet care.
If possible, ask a family member, friend or caregiver to help you care for your pet. This includes cleaning litter boxes and bird cages, cleaning up accidents around the house and picking up dog droppings outside.
If you have to clean a litter box or bird cage, be sure to keep them away from common areas in the home. And always wear gloves and a mask on your face to prevent exposure to waste and airborne germs.
8. Avoid being around certain pets.
You should avoid certain animals when undergoing cancer treatment, even if they’re domesticated as pets. This is due to the health risks they pose. Cancer patients should avoid:
hamsters and other rodents
Sometimes a patient will have diarrhea and we think it’s from chemotherapy treatments, when in fact, it’s from salmonella or campylobacter. These are bacteria that can be found on surfaces where these animals have been. This is extremely dangerous for stem cell transplant patients, who may be severely immunocompromised.
Pets are an important part of a patient’s support network
Cancer treatment not only includes your doctors, social work counselors, nurses and medical team. There’s also a support network that’s necessary. Pets are part of that network. They’re a part of your family. I’ve noticed that some patients with pets report fewer side effects and have more tolerability to chemotherapy and other medicine.
Patients can often feel lonely, and pets provide an invaluable level of companionship. At MD Anderson, we realize the value of having a pet. We encourage patients to work with their care team to reduce the risk of infection, so patients can enjoy their pets throughout their cancer treatment.