Is It Safe to Keep a Pet During Treatment?

As I walked down the hall to my radiation treatment area, I passed a scene that brought me to tears. Outside a treatment room door, a service dog, a guiding eyes' dog for a person who is blind, lay there facing the closed door just staring at the door.

Small dog holding out paw to shake hands with a human
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I asked the medical assistant accompanying me to my treatment room about the dog. She responded, “He is not allowed in the treatment room. Each day, the lady he guides instructs him to stay outside the door. At first, he was anxious, but now, 3 weeks into her treatment; he just calmly waits until she comes out.”

That scene set off a host of emotions. I was 4 weeks into my radiation therapy regimen and dragging myself to daily treatments before going to work. I was feeling sorry for myself and angry at my situation. The image of that dog, and the woman behind that door who depended on him for her independence, brought me up short. It was an immediate attitude adjustment.

The focus of my anger went from my situation to the unfairness of a blind woman having the added burden of breast cancer and all that goes with it.

Walking to the subway, I began to think of the comfort and companionship some pets can provide during the isolation and loneliness of chemo when side effects keep us at home not well enough to socialize with others.

I say some pets, because not all pets are safe to be around during chemo. What kind of cancer a person has also determines how safe it is to be around a pet during chemotherapy. Chemo can severely impact on your immune system making you more vulnerable to infection. A stem-cell transplant is one example where every precaution needs to be taken to protect you from infection.

Before you begin treatment, you need to have a conversation with your treatment team. You need to discuss not only what kinds of pets you have but how you care for them each day. Check with the veterinarian who cares for your pets to identify illnesses that a pet can pass to you when your immune system is weakened by treatment.

Your care team will want to know what plans you have made to care for your pet when you are feeling too sick to do so. Be sure a pet caregiver has written directions on feeding your pet, cleaning the pet living space, taking the pet for walks, and the veterinarian’s contact number.

A pet that has been with you for a while is a safer situation than adopting or buying a new pet while going through treatment. While a new pet is not recommended during treatment, if you do adopt a pet, during treatment, avoid pets under a year of age as they require more care, often scratch or bite and have bladder and bowel accidents that require cleanup. Be sure the pet is checked out by a veterinarian before bringing it into your home.

If your pet develops symptoms such as a runny nose, cough, weight loss, vomiting, or diarrhea, go to the veterinarian right away. Your pet can pass this infection on to you during treatment if your immune system is compromised.

Dogs and cats can also sometimes pick up germs that don’t make them sick. However, if a person with a weak immune system gets some of these germs, they can become seriously ill. Even if your pet seems healthy, it’s important to take some precautions during treatment.

Pets can transmit germs to you in several ways:

  • Biting and scratching – see your doctor if your pet breaks your skin. You will probably need antibiotics.
  • Licking and saliva-pets can transmit illnesses through their saliva. Avoid letting your pet lick you. Wash your skin right after being licked.
  • Vomit – have someone else clean up after your pet vomits.

Caring for a Pet During Your Treatment

  • It is best to eliminate kissing, snuggling, or sleeping with your pet.
  • Always use waterproof disposable gloves when cleaning the litter box or picking up pet droppings.
  • Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly after any contact with your pet such as touching, feeding, or cleaning up after him or her.
  • Avoid all exposure to reptiles, their habitats, and objects they use.
  • Always use gloves when out in the yard doing gardening to avoid animal droppings.
  • You need to have someone other than yourself take care of a bird cage or a fish tank. Bird cages liners need daily cleaning. Bird dropping will dry and form dust that can be inhaled. This can cause serious infections for anyone with a weakened immune system.
  • Keep your dog inside except to toilet and brief walks on the leash. Keep your dog away from encounters with other dogs. Also, keep cats inside.

Pets Best Not Kept During Treatment

Reptiles, chickens and ducks and rodents are best avoided during treatment because they often carry Salmonella, which can be very serious for a person whose immune system is weakened by treatment. Rodents and pocket pets are known to carry germs that can easily be spread to humans whose resistance to infection is low.

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