Health Benefits of Dogs for Cancer Patients

By on November 15, 2021

Karen Selby, a registered nurse, offers some benefits of pets for people who are sick in this helpful guide. Read her introduction below, click the links to more information, and see a great informational graphic collection related to sections of the guide. The full guide can be found here.

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.

  1. Health Benefits for Cancer Patients 
  2. How Dogs Help 
  3. Are Pet Dogs Safe? 
  4. Resources 
  5. Related Pages

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.

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