Q&A: How Do Pets Help Those Coping With Cancer?


By: Julie Loffredi, National Health & Wellness Content Desk

In this week’s Q&A, we talk with Trish Goldsmith from the non-profit organization CancerCare to discuss the importance of animal companions for those going through cancer treatment and the resources available during the pandemic.

Q: What are some tools that help people get through cancer?

Trish: Maintaining connections with friends and family can play an important role in a person’s well-being during their cancer experience. Speaking with a support professional, such as a CancerCare oncology social worker, also offers an external outlet to explore issues that a person may not feel comfortable discussing with a close family member or friend.

Some individuals find it useful to channel energy into creative pursuits like journaling, playing music, or arts and crafts. Relaxation and mind/body techniques (meditation, breathing exercises, tai chi, and much more) can relieve stress and improve a sense of inner peacefulness. 

Simply spending time with a beloved pet can provide comfort to those coping with cancer and walking one’s dog has the added benefits of fresh air and light exercise. By providing structure to the day, maintaining a pet’s daily routine can help people impacted by cancer feel more in control.

Q: What are the physical and mental benefits of having a pet?

Trish: Besides having the love, support, and companionship of a dog or cat, having a pet when a person is going through cancer provides significant physical and mental health benefits.

Having a pet can help to decrease anxiety and pain, lower blood pressure, and help alleviate depression. Studies have shown that petting a dog or cat triggers the release of “feel good” brain chemicals, such as serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin, which help induce a sense of calm and wellbeing. Fatigue can be a challenge for people with cancer; for pet owners who are able, getting moderate exercise, such as walking a dog, may help increase energy levels.  The routine of taking a dog for a walk or other daily pet care tasks can also add structure to the day, which may help a person feel more grounded and in control.  

Q: Why are pets beneficial to the health and wellbeing of a person with cancer or any other illness?

Trish: For some individuals, their pet is the only support system they have in their home. In fact, a survey of past PAW program financial assistance recipients indicated that 34% of them had only their pet in the home for support. As such, pets can help alleviate loneliness and that often comes with cancer treatment and increases socialization.  A pet can provide motivation for a person with cancer to get better, while also providing a distraction from stress or pain.

Q: Can owning a pet for someone going thru cancer treatments be stressful?

Trish: Yes, owning a pet when a person is going through cancer treatments can be stressful. In fact, 90% of CancerCare’s clients who have pets say they struggle to care for their pets.  This can often lead to tragic consequences, where a beloved pet must be surrendered to shelter because the owner can no longer care of the pet. The PAW Program was created to help keep pets and their families together.

Q: How many people with cancer in America have pets?

Trish: Data from several sources suggest that pet owners make up 67% of the more than 1.8 million new cancer cases each year.

Q: Why was the PAW Program developed?

Q: Why was the PAW Program developed?

Trish: At CancerCare, we continually seek innovative ways to improve the day-to-day lives of our clients and their loved ones. We know that pets are important members of many families, and this holds true for our staff and for me, as Chief Executive Officer and as someone who is passionate about animals and my rescue dogs.

Eleven days before joining CancerCare in 2014, I was unexpectedly diagnosed with early-stage colorectal cancer. My pets were a lifeline through the turmoil of diagnosis, the difficult treatment days, and the dual uncertainty and relief of post-treatment survivorship. Knowing how integral my pets have been to my life—before, during, and after cancer—made it even more heartrending to hear about clients who were struggling to take care of their pets due to medical bills, fatigue and other challenges. For some clients, their pet was their only source of support at home.

Q: How has CancerCare adapted their services during the coronavirus pandemic?

Trish: In the early days of the pandemic, even before the city mandated the closure of businesses, we moved our in-person services to the telephone and established teleworking procedures for the safety of our clients and our staff. We are lucky to have had existing infrastructure to offer our services remotely after years of serving clients across the country from our national office in New York City and our regional offices in New Jersey and Long Island.

The demand for our services has been immense. On top of coping with cancer, our clients were also experiencing the stress and uncertainty of a growing global pandemic, loss of income and employment, and even delays in treatment and surgery. This was reflected in our increased call volume, which jumped an average of 34% through the spring and summer.

In addition to our standard services, we opened multiple financial assistance funds and a transportation assistance program in collaboration with fellow advocacy organizations. To date, we’ve hosted four Connect Education Workshops that offer telephone and online participants to hear the latest cancer-related guidelines and developments regarding COVID-19 from world-leading experts, including the opportunity to ask questions live. We also developed a podcast miniseries addressing coronavirus-related issues like social distancing and caregiving during a pandemic, and we published ten brand-new fact sheets on topics like telemedicine and discussing the coronavirus with children.

We are always listening to and learning from our clients. We’re grateful for the trust they put in us to support them. As their needs grow and evolve, so do our services.

To learn more about CancerCare, visit https://www.cancercare.org or https://www.cancercare.org/paw.

Hear what Katie Couric has to say about the importance of the PAW Program for people coping with cancer.

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