Man’s best friend: why every cancer patient needs a dog
From work partners and guardians to family companions, dogs have been an integral part of humanity for millennia. But man’s best friend has even more to offer when it comes to your health. Dogs can help detect cancer, reduce depression, and even help reduce allergies in children.
And while the emotional and physical benefits of a canine companion are myriad, our furry friends can be especially important for cancer patients. First, let’s take a look at some of the general health benefits of adding a dog to your family.
Health Perks of Owning a Dog
1 | Dogs Keep Us Active
It’s much more fun going for a walk in the park with your dog than going alone. A walk in the park or a simple game of catch in your backyard keeps you active and your dog fit and healthy. Many dogs are full of energy, and they expect you to keep up with them, forcing you to be more active than you may otherwise have been.
Starting your day with a healthy bit of cardio isn’t always easy to do… but it’s much easier when your best friend reaaalllly needs to go out! Dog owners are about four times more likely than other people to meet today’s physical activity guidelines, according to a large-scale new study of dogs and exercise. The study, which involved hundreds of British households, suggests that having a dog can strongly influence how much people exercise.
We already know that sitting is the new smoking, so the more activity you can build into your day the better!
2 | Dogs Help Fight Depression
Studies have revealed that dogs can reduce tension and improve your mood. Playing with a dog elevates levels of dopamine and serotonin in your system. These are the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters that create feelings of well-being and emotional stability. This can help with mild to moderate depression.
Studies show that dogs reduce stress, anxiety and depression, ease loneliness, encourage exercise and improve your all-around health. Just playing with dogs has been shown to elevate oxytocin and dopamine, creating positive feelings and bonding for both the person and their pet.
Your health isn’t just about physical fitness; it’s about mental, emotional, and spiritual wellness as well. And a furry friend is proven to improve your mental health. Not bad for a pet!
3 | Dogs Improve Heart Health
When interactions between humans and dogs have been studied, touching or talking to a dog have been found to lower blood pressure. There’s also the fact that dog owners have to walk their dogs and often get more exercise than those who don’t own dogs.
You have less risk of developing heart disease because of the decrease in blood pressure, triglycerides and cholesterol levels. It’s also been found that dog owners who do have heart attacks are less likely to suffer another event than those who don’t own dogs.
Heart disease and cancer are the two leading causes of death in the United States. In fact, heart disease and cancer have claimed the first and second spots respectively for over a century. But your four-legged buddy can help reduce your risk of heart disease… the LEADING cause of death worldwide.
3 Ways Dogs Help Cancer Patients
There are dozens of additional benefits to owning a dog, but we want to focus specifically on cancer patients. A cancer diagnosis can be one of the most frightening things to happen in your life. But cancer is NOT a death sentence! There are TONS of ways that you can help prevent, treat, and beat cancer… including welcoming a dog to your home!
1 | Dogs Can Detect Cancer
Dogs can often sense when something is wrong. Whether you’re sad, stressed, or just tired, your pup can be very intuitive. But when it comes to cancer, that “sixth sense” is clinical.
Research has shown that dogs can detect many types of cancer. For example, a case study published in BMJ Case Reports describes how a 75-year-old man visited a doctor after his dog licked persistently at a lesion behind the man’s ear.
The doctor performed diagnostic tests and confirmed malignant melanoma.
While nobody had trained this person’s dog to specifically detect cancer, most research studies into canine cancer detection involve teaching individual dogs to sniff out specific cancers.
Trained dogs are able to detect colorectal cancer from people’s breath and watery stool with high levels of accuracy, even for early stage cancers. The presence of gut inflammation or noncancerous colorectal disease does not seem to affect dogs’ ability to detect these cancers.
Dogs can also detect lung cancer from a person’s breath. One study found that a trained dog had a very high rate of accuracy in distinguishing between the breath of people with and without lung cancer.
They are also able to detect ovarian cancer from blood samples and prostate cancer from sniffing a person’s urine.
One study found that dogs trained only to detect breast cancer were also able to detect melanoma and lung cancer, meaning that there may be a common odor signature across different types of cancer.
The next time your dog seems especially worried… LISTEN! Early detection gives a huge boost to your chance of success when it comes to cancer treatment. Having a best friend who can tell when your body is in trouble is a great way to protect yourself against cancer.
2 | Dogs Can Help Take Care of You
Many cancer patients feel vulnerable as they embark (pun intended) on their healing journey. But dogs can be trained to perform many tasks… some of which just may save your life in an emergency. First, we need to re-think the idea of a “service dog.”
When most people think of service dogs, they think of guide dogs for the blind. But medical service dogs can also be trained to bark for help, retrieve a phone, assist in walking, and opening and closing doors. They can even be trained to pick up dropped items or turn on/off lights and appliances.
While therapy dogs provide support to patients living with cancer, service dogs can be an integral part of recovery and independence for people whose cancer results in physical or psychological disabilities. According to the National Service Animal Registry, a service dog differs from an emotional therapy or support dog because it is “trained to perform major life tasks to assist people with physical or severe psychiatric impairments/disabilities.” Service dogs can be trained to:
- Assist in walking and prevent falls
- Turn lights and appliances on and off
- Carry groceries, bags, and packages
- Pick up items that are dropped or out of reach
- Bark for help and/or retrieve a phone
For a cancer survivor facing new challenges and abilities (especially if you’re dealing with the severe side effects of toxic chemo or invasive surgery), a service dog can provide help and encourage independence.
3 | Dogs Help You Feel Better
For many cancer patients, finding someone to help them as they heal is essential. When you’re sick, the physical journey is only half the battle. Have you ever heard of the “nocebo effect”? People who are discouraged and lacking hope are more likely to die than those who have a hope and a support system. And dogs can really help here.
In a 2015 study in the Journal of Community and Supportive Oncology, researchers followed patients who were visited by therapy dogs while receiving chemotherapy and radiation treatments for gastrointestinal or head and neck cancers. “Having an animal-assisted visit significantly improved their quality of life and ‘humanized’ a high-tech treatment,” says Stewart B. Fleishman, MD, principal investigator in the study.
Another 2015 study in Canada looked at how animal-assisted therapy helped women with breast cancer. Researchers determined that pet therapy helped calm patients and ease their anxiety and stress, adding in the study’s conclusion that it also “promoted increased communication with health professionals.”
Therapy pets may be especially beneficial to cancer patients by:
- Easing their anxiety and elevating their mood
- Offering company and comfort, thereby lessening feelings of isolation or loneliness
- Providing a distraction from pain, stress, or boredom
- Relaxing them, especially since petting or snuggling with a soft, friendly animal releases endorphins that have a calming effect
- Motivating them to get better
- Increasing socialization and encouraging communication
Whether you’re facing a cancer diagnosis or simply want to make a lifelong friend, it’s a sure thing that adding a dog to your family will increase your overall health and wellness in ways you could only have imagined.
From cancer detection and physical assistance to companionship and improved mental health, you’ll be glad to meet your furry friend.
Editor’s note: Our dogs have informed us that scratches, walks, and treats are all acceptable ways to thank your best friend for all of his help.