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What Is the “Pet Effect” and Can It Help Cancer Patients?

August 01, 2022

Think about how you feel around your pet. Do you feel content, happy, or loved? Since the pandemic, the emotional value of pets has become even more apparent. This special bond, known as the “pet effect,” is the beneficial relationship between people and animals that positively impacts the health and well-being of both.

In a recent survey of pet owners worldwide, 95 percent consider their pets to be a part of the family. The same survey revealed there is a strong link between pet ownership and improved human health. In fact, 87 percent of surveyed pet owners say they have experienced a mental or physical health benefit from bonding with their pet.

Pets offer companionship, motivation to stay physically active, and positive encouragement during challenging times, especially for people with cancer.

How pets impact your mental health

According to the American Psychological Association, pet owners tend to have increased self-esteem and a more positive mood. A study on the impact of pets and mental health conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic found that pets can increase uplifting emotions and enhance coping skills when connection to others is diminished or not possible.

The emotional toll of coping with cancer is significant for patients and can lead to periods of depression and anxiety. The potential mental health benefits for cancer patients who own a pet include:

  • Easing anxiety and elevating negative or depressed moods
  • Boosting patients’ self-esteem and giving a sense of purpose
  • Offering company, companionship, and comfort, and lessening feelings of isolation or loneliness
  • Providing a distraction from pain, stress, and boredom

The physical benefits of the ‘pet effect’

Pet ownership has also been linked to improving people’s physical health. Research shows that pets can help lower a patient’s blood pressure and heart rate, reduce stress levels, and even alleviate pain.

Studies have found that social interaction between people and animals can increase levels of the “feel-good” hormone oxytocin, while others may experience a feeling of calm or relaxation from petting or snuggling with a cuddly pet, due to lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Doctors often emphasize the importance of exercise for cancer patients. Another valuable benefit of having a pet—and an easy way for “pet parents” to get exercise—is to simply take their pet for a walk.

Considerations of having a pet when going through cancer treatment

Even with these benefits, having a pet is not ideal for everyone, and patients may want to consult their medical team for recommendations, based on their circumstances.

Pet ownership carries a great responsibility and patients need to ensure they can care for their pet at home while undergoing treatment. Having a plan for assistance with tasks like feeding or walking your pet should be established early. Additionally, pets are not an appropriate surprise gift. It is important to first establish with the patient and their household that they are able and willing to provide all needed care.

The importance of support systems for cancer patients is well-known. In appropriate situations, pets and animal interactions can be a boost to your spirits, bringing a smile to your face and creating a welcome distraction from the daily trials of cancer.

For upcoming webinars visit www.TexasOncologyFoundation.org.