5 ways pets can help you live better with breast cancer
If you’ve ever had a pet or spent time viewing other people’s pets on social media, you’ve likely experienced the magical, positive effect they can have on your well-being.
According to the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI), nearly all (98%) of pet owners report at least one specific benefit to their health from their pets including increased happiness, reduced loneliness, and decreased stress.
When we asked our online community how their pets have helped them during their cancer experience, the response included everything from serving as constant companions to providing emotional support to motivating them get active; some people even said they don’t think they would have gotten through treatment without their furry companions.
Here are five researched-supported ways pets have helped members of our community — and how they may help you — cope through diagnosis, treatment, and beyond.
1. Emotional support
The importance of having a support system is well-documented, as breast cancer can take a toll on your emotional health, even leading to periods of depression and anxiety.
When we think of support systems, we typically think of human caregivers, but, in the appropriate circumstances, research shows that having a pet may also help to:
- Ease anxiety
- Improve symptoms of depression
- Boost self-esteem and give a sense of purpose
- Lessen feelings of isolation or loneliness
For Amy, who was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer two years ago, having Charlie and Gracie (below), her two cocker spaniels, by her side following chemotherapy and radiation helped her to feel less alone.
“During treatment, they didn't ask questions, offer unsolicited advice, try to help, or judge me,” explains Amy. “They were just there being cute and sweet and sometimes funny. They filled the void when I felt alone and reminded me that it was all going to be ok without ever saying a word.”
2. Reduced stress
Breast cancer and chronic diseases can lead to psychological stress, a natural response to mental, physical, or emotional pressure. Interacting with animals, such as petting or snuggling, has proven to increase levels of the “feel-good” hormone oxytocin and lower the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which may lead to experiencing a sense of calm or relaxation.
Following two primary early-stage breast cancer diagnoses in 2020 at age 46, Kim was fortunate to find Cinda, the rescue dog she adopted just weeks before being diagnosed.
“She was my absolute rock during treatment and gave me joy when it was hard to find elsewhere in my life,” says Kim. “She bonded to me tightly and was the best decision I've ever made.”
3. Improved physical health
Pet ownership has been linked to improved physical health, too. Research shows that animal-assisted activities result in everything from lower blood pressure and heart rate, improved circulatory health, and reduced pain and discomfort.
Dogs may help alleviate pain when they’re aware you’re experiencing it. Research shows that dogs can recognize when you are sad or in pain by facial recognition, body language, and smell.
“My Golden Doodle must be able to sense when I am in pain,” @pink_collateral_damage posted on LBBC’s Instagram. “She lies by me and is extra affectionate. The unconditional love is exactly what I need!”
4. Motivation to stay active
We know that exercise and activity have benefits for people with early-stage breast cancer, including increased survival time. And research shows that in people with metastatic breast cancer, exercise may ease pain, fatigue and anxiety. Staying active can also help you feel good and give you a greater sense of well-being. Still, it can be difficult for you to stay active. Dogs can help provide much-needed motivation and positive encouragement to get you moving.
After being diagnosed with de novo stage IV breast cancer 12 years ago at age 58, Barbara (above) experienced painful joint inflammation throughout her body, which resulted in her avoiding most physical activity. It was her Aussie pup Mocha, adopted at 10 months old just prior to her diagnosis, who got her moving.
“Mocha needed several walks a day,” says Barbara. “At first I could only make myself walk short distances, but I worked my way up to at least one longish (1.5 miles) walk each day.”
The last few years Mocha and Barbara walked shorter distances as they both aged. This last spring after her time and energy were reduced by a very difficult treatment protocol, it was Mocha who helped Barbara get outside and push herself to walk again.
“There are no words to explain how precious her constant presence was to motivate and comfort me in this long walk home,” Barbara says of Mocha, who died in September.
5. Better quality of life
Adjusting to a breast cancer diagnosis is different for each person, and it’s an ongoing process. Some people find strength to move forward through talking to others who have a shared experience. Others find a human-animal bond essential in improving their quality of life and overall satisfaction, and a growing number of studies support the positive role this relationship can play.
Chelsey (above) who has been living with metastatic breast cancer since 2019, is a vocal advocate of the many benefits of pet companionship.
“My greatest joy are my dogs, Hudson and Noma,” says Chelsey. “They are unconditional love and support. I just know that they're going to be there for me no matter what, with no judgment ever.”
Is a pet right for me, right now?
Even with all the possible health benefits, having a pet is not ideal for everyone. Let your medical team know about the pets you have and ask for guidance based on your circumstances. Some breast cancer treatments may compromise your immune system and increase your risk of infection, so you may be advised to avoid being scratched or licked by your pet, cleaning up pet feces, or even to avoid being around certain types of pets altogether.
If you already have a pet or are considering adding one to your household, put plans in place to care for your pet in case you need help while undergoing treatment. Having a plan in place early is key to helping ensure tasks like feeding or walking your pet are covered. For example, consider asking a friend, family member, or neighbor to help.
If owning a pet isn’t ideal in your situation, you can still benefit from human-animal bond through therapy and service dogs. Contact your local hospital or cancer center to find out what programs may be available. If you’re more of a cat person, consider visiting a cat café, shops where you can enjoy coffee, tea, and snacks surrounded by adorable, often adoptable, kitties.
If the real thing isn’t an option, you can still reap science-backed benefits, such as reduced anxiety and stress, by watching cute animal videos. No feeding, walking, or cleaning up required.