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6 Ways Owning a Dog Can Help if You Have Breast Cancer

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on September 15, 2021

Your dog makes your life great, but did you know they can also make you healthier? They offer a wide range of physical and mental health benefits, especially if you have breast cancer.

No. 1. Improves your heart health. Breast cancer treatments might put you at a higher risk for heart disease. Your dog may be able to help. A study that looked at over 60 years of data found that people who owned a dog had a reduced long-term risk of death. Experts believe this is because dog owners usually have a lower chance of cardiovascular issues. People who own dogs tend to have lower blood pressure levels and better reactions to stress, which is a large factor in many heart issues.

No. 2.  Encourages exercise. Your dog can greatly boost the amount of physical activity you get. A study found that dog owners are around four times more likely to hit their daily physical activity guidelines than people who don't own a dog. People who have dogs spend, on average, 300 minutes a week on walks, which is 200 more minutes than people without a dog.

Exercising and losing weight can reduce the risk of breast cancer. In addition, those who exercised regularly before their cancer diagnosis and after treatment were less likely to see their cancer come back. They also have a lower risk of dying from breast cancer compared with people who were inactive. Regular walks with your furry friend may save your life.

No. 3. Eases isolation. Your dog can provide you with comfort during your cancer journey. Pets can make you feel less lonely as well. In one study with a sample of dog owners, researchers found that once people got a dog, their levels of loneliness lowered within 3 months. Another study showed that 76% of people believe a pet can help with social isolation. This may be especially helpful during treatment, when you're unable to do as many activities as you previously did.

No. 4. Lowers stress. Experts believe that dogs can help relieve stress and anxiety. Studies show that playing with a familiar dog can help lower your blood pressure and heart rate, relax your muscle tension, slow down your breathing, and reduce your levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Just 10 minutes of petting your dog can have an impact.

No. 5. Fights depression. A breast cancer diagnosis, chemotherapy, hormone treatment, and other changes might make you feel depressed. Talk to your doctor to see if you might need help from a mental health professional.

Your doctor may also suggest some tips to help with depression. Owning a pet may be one way to help you feel more like yourself. When you play with a dog, your oxytocin and dopamine hormone levels rise, which creates a good feeling and bonds you with your pet.

Your dog can offer you companionship, which can ward off the symptoms of depression. They can help distract you for a while from any anxiety or tension you may feel.

No. 6. Gives you motivation. If you feel down, a pet can motivate you to get out of bed, complete your daily tasks, and stay on top of your schedule. Taking care of a dog can give your life structure and cause you to feel satisfied and accomplished.

Safety Tips

To stay safe, it's important to consider a few things before you begin breast cancer treatment:

  • Tell your cancer care team about your pet and any care routines. They'll let you know what's safe and not safe during treatment.
  • Talk with your pet's veterinarian to find out about any illnesses you're at risk for from your pet while your immune system is weak. Have them check your pet for any diseases and make sure they're up to date medically as well.
  • Avoid scratches and bites during treatment. If your pet does bite or scratch you, call your doctor right away. This might put you at risk for infection.
  • Have someone else clean poop, pee, or other pet messes during your treatment. If you absolutely must clean it yourself, wear waterproof gloves and wash your hands afterward.
  • Don't let your pet lick you near open cuts or your mouth. This can spread illnesses.
  • Wash your hands after touching your pet.
  • Try to avoid close contact with your pet during treatment (kissing, snuggling, or sleeping in the same bed).
  • Keep your pet indoors as much as possible during your treatment to lower the risk of any illnesses.
  • Don't let your pet drink standing or toilet water and keep them away from any garbage.
  • Avoid any wild animals, including wild dogs.
 
WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Cancer Society: "Pets, Support, and Service Animals for People with Cancer," "Infections and Pet Safety."

Oregon Health and Science University: "The Link Between Breast Cancer and Heart Disease."

Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes: "Dog Ownership and Survival."

Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges: "Therapeutic Benefits of Pets."

American Kennel Club: "10 Science-Based Benefits of Having a Dog."

Scientific Reports: "Dog owners are more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than people without a dog: An investigation of the association between dog ownership and physical activity levels in a UK community."

National Cancer Institute: "For Women with Breast Cancer, Regular Exercise May Improve Survival."

Journal of the Society for Integrative Oncology: "Breast Cancer and the Immune System."

Clujul Medical: "Psychological stress and breast cancer incidence: a systematic review."

BMC Public Health: "Companion dog acquisition and mental well-being: a community-based three-arm controlled study."

Human Animal Bond Research Institute: "Social Isolation & Loneliness."

AERA Open: "Animal Visitation Program (AVP) Reduces Cortisol Levels of University Students: A Randomized Controlled Trial."

Breatcancer.org: "Depression."

National Alliance of mental health: "How Dogs Can Help with Depression."

American Humane: "Benefits of Owning A Dog."

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