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The Health Benefits of Owning Pets

senior man sitting on a park bench with his two dogs and cat

Do you count one or more dogs, cats, fish, reptiles, birds, or other animals as part of your family? About two-thirds of US households include at least 1 pet, according to the Insurance Information Institute. Many people love their non-human friends because they offer companionship. Our pets can also increase our opportunities for outdoor exercise.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pets can have positive effects on our physical health. Being around them can help decrease our blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and triglyceride levels.

But just like people, pets sometimes carry germs that can make us sick. That’s why it’s important to practice good hygiene around your pets to avoid getting germs. This is especially important for people with weaker immune systems, including cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.

Coronavirus and your pet

There is no evidence that coronavirus or any other virus can be spread to people from the fur or skin of pets. But it’s still a good idea to wash your hands before and after touching pets because animals can sometimes carry other germs.

A few animals around the world have become infected with coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. According to the CDC, the risk of pets spreading the virus to people is considered to be low. It still makes sense to protect pets from infection the same way you protect yourself and other family members.

Try not to let your pets get near people outside your household. If you get sick with COVID-19, try to avoid close contact with your pets. This may mean someone else should take care of them while you’re sick. If you do have to take care of your pets while you’re sick, wash your hands before or after touching them and wear a face mask.

The CDC does not recommend testing pets for COVID-19. If your pet gets sick, call your veterinarian.

Stay healthy during cancer treatment

It’s even more important for you to protect yourself from your pets’ germs if you’re getting cancer treatment that makes your immune system weaker than usual. Most healthy inside cats and dogs are safe, and they can be an important source of emotional support while you receive chemotherapy. But some pets – including reptiles, chickens, ducks, hamsters, gerbils, mice, guinea pigs, and ferrets – are not always safe to be around while you’re in cancer treatment.   Talk to your cancer care team and your veterinarian about your pets, and the best way to care for them while you’re getting treatment.

Precautions you may be advised to take include:

  • Avoiding scratches and bites. Get your pet’s claws trimmed often to make scratches less likely. If you are scratched or bitten, clean the area and call your doctor.
  • Avoiding pet urine and feces. Wear gloves when you clean up waste from outside or from a litter box. Wash your hands as soon as you’re done. Better yet, ask a friend or relative to handle this chore.
  • Washing your hands with soap and water after playing with, caring for, or petting animals, especially before preparing or eating food and drink
  • Not allowing your pet to lick your mouth, open cuts, or wounds
  • Keeping your pet clean, and keeping regular veterinary appointments for a healthy pet
  • Not getting a new pet when you have cancer

Children with cancer

Children who are too young to follow these precautions should not be near pets. Children tend to be at higher risk for infection from pets than adults, because they’re more likely to crawl on the floor with the pet and put things in their mouths. If your child has a weak immune system or might be getting a bone marrow or stem cell transplant, it’s even more important for them to stay away from pets.

  • Adults should supervise the time a child spends with pets.
  • Don’t allow kissing, food sharing, or rough play.
  • Don’t let children put the pet’s toys or their own fingers in their mouths. Be sure the child’s hands are washed thoroughly afterward, and again before eating, drinking, or taking medicines.
  • Be sure your child’s cancer team knows about your pet and ask them if there are any special precautions you need to take.
  • Keep your child away from strays, wild animals, petting zoos, and other people’s pets.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as editors and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.