Infections and Pet Safety

Is it safe to keep my pet while I'm being treated for cancer?

Caring for certain pets might increase your risk of getting an infection. Not all pets pose the same risks, and not all cancer treatments do, either. If you have pets, tell your cancer care team about them and your routines for caring for them. You can find out what might not be safe during cancer treatment. It’s also a good idea to visit your pet’s veterinarian to find out what kinds of illness might be passed from your pet during times when your immune system is weak.

It's best to avoid some types of pets while you're getting cancer treatment (see below). There’s also a big difference between taking in a sick stray and keeping your healthy pet during cancer treatment. Strays often carry more germs and might not be up to date on vaccines.

Pets that live inside the home and are well-cared for are much less likely to cause problems if precautions are used. Still, pets can sometimes pick up germs that don't make them sick, but if a person with a weak immune system gets some of these germs, they can become ill.

How can you get an infection from a pet?

Bites and scratches

It’s best if you can avoid bites and scratches while you are getting cancer treatment. If your pet plays rough, you may have to call a halt to that until your immune system recovers.

  • Get your dog or cat’s claws trimmed often so that you’re less likely to be scratched.
  • Scratches should be cleaned and covered until they heal.
  • If any redness, swelling, or pus forms around a scratch, call your doctor right away.
  • If your pet bites and breaks the skin, call your doctor. All bites carry the risk of infection and can require hospitalization even in people with normal immune systems. It’s likely you’d need antibiotics and maybe other treatment, depending on the location and severity of the bite. Cat bites are especially likely to become infected, because their long narrow teeth can make deep puncture wounds that are hard to clean.

Feces and urine

A number of illnesses can be spread via pet droppings, and a few spread through urine.

  • Keep litter boxes away from food preparation areas and places where people eat.
  • Have someone else remove waste from the litter box or bird cage every day and discard it safely.
  • If a pet has an accident inside, it’s best to get someone else to clean it up and the area should be disinfected.
  • If you must do the clean-up, wear disposable waterproof gloves and wash your hands afterward.

Licking, saliva, and vomit

A few illnesses can be transmitted by saliva, so it’s best not to let your pet lick open cuts or near your mouth.

  • Wash with soap and water if you get pet saliva on your skin.
  • Any vomit should be cleaned up by someone else if possible, while wearing waterproof disposable gloves.

Touch

Some germs can be picked up by touching or petting the animal. That’s why washing your hands after pet contact is important.

Protecting your health during cancer treatment

Here are some tips that can help keep you safe during cancer treatment.

  • Avoid very close contact, such as kissing, snuggling, or sleeping with your pet in the same bed.
  • Visit your veterinarian so your pet(s) can be checked for any diseases that might cause infection and get medications to prevent infections from heartworms, fleas, or ticks.
  • Make sure your pet(s) are up to date with their vaccinations. Ask your vet whether any vaccines are “live,” and check with your cancer team before live vaccines are given.
  • Have your cat(s) tested for feline leukemia (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency (FIV) viruses. Even though these viruses can’t infect humans, they affect the cat’s immune system and put them at risk of other infections that can infect humans.
  • Bring your pet(s) to a veterinarian if you suspect they are sick.
  • Keep your pets and their sleeping areas clean.
  • Feed pets only high-quality commercial canned or dry food, or well-cooked table food. Never let them have old or spoiled food, raw meat or its juices.
  • Wear waterproof disposable gloves if you must clean the fish tank, bird cage, cat litter box, or to pick up dog droppings.
  • Bird cage liners should be cleaned every day.
  • Don’t handle the outside of your gloves after you use them. Remove gloves by pulling off from the inside surface at the cuff, then discard them.
  • Wash your hands after petting, caring for, touching, feeding, or cleaning up after pets (even if you wore gloves).
  • Wash your hands before taking medicines and handling food, dishes, or other things in the kitchen.
  • Ask others to clean fish tanks and cages of birds or other pets.
  • Avoid contact with animals you don’t know, especially strays or those that look sick.
  • Avoid contact with reptiles, their cages or terraria, and objects from their cages.
  • Wear gloves when gardening to avoid contact with animal droppings.
  • Keep your pets, like cats and dogs indoors as much as possible to minimize exposure to other pets and animals, such as birds and rodents.
  • Make sure you have someone who can take care of your pets and their living quarters if you get too sick or have to be in the hospital. Keep written instructions for feeding, cleaning, medicines, toileting, and veterinary contacts ready if needed.
  • Getting a new pet during cancer treatment isn’t usually recommended. But if a family chooses to adopt a pet, a healthy older dog or cat would probably pose less risk than those under a year old. The animal should be checked by a veterinarian before it’s brought home. Puppies and kittens can pose higher risks than older pets. They're also more likely to play rough, bite, or have in-home "accidents" that must be cleaned up.
  • If your pet has a runny nose, cough, weight loss, vomiting, or diarrhea, see a veterinarian right away. He could have an infection that can be passed on to you. A person with a weak immune system might be at higher risk of getting an illness from their pet when it’s sick.
  • Keep your pet away from animal waste, garbage, and other "found treats".
  • Don't let your pet drink from the toilet or standing water outside.
  • Don't allow your pet to visit with sick pets or wild or stray animals.
  • Watch for signs of rats or mice in your home, and take measures to control them. Don’t allow your pet to hunt them; keep pets away from any infested areas. After rodents are gone, the area should be thoroughly disinfected using a bleach mixture.

Keeping pets healthy

Be sure that the vet prescribes medicines to prevent heartworms, and use flea and tick prevention for dogs and cats. Pets and their sleeping areas will also need to be kept clean. You might need help with your pets’ care during some parts of your cancer treatment – it’s good to line up a helper or two before you start treatment.

Help your pet avoid infections

  • Keep your dog inside except for brief outings to use the toilet and walks on the leash in places where they won’t meet other animals.
  • Cats should also be kept inside – those that go out are likely to hunt birds and small rodents. This is a common way cats get a parasitic infection called toxoplasmosis. It doesn’t often make the cat sick, but it can seriously sicken or even kill someone with weakened immunity.
  • Keep your pet from visiting with “outside” pets of unknown health. It’s best not to board your pet in a kennel if you can avoid it.
  • Dog parks and pet stores that allow pets inside are other places where pets can pick up new infections.

Pets you shouldn’t be around during cancer treatment

Reptiles

People with weak immune systems (especially those getting a stem cell transplant or bone marrow transplant) should not keep reptiles. Snakes, turtles, lizards, and iguanas are very common carriers of salmonella, which can be lethal in people with very weak immune function. This germ can live for some time on surfaces and objects that the animal touched. Because a person doesn’t have to handle the reptile to be exposed to this germ, it can be hard to avoid it.

Chickens and ducks

People with very weak immune systems, especially those who are having stem cell transplants, should not have or come in contact with ducklings and chicks. Even as adults, chickens and ducks have a high risk of salmonella or campylobacter infection.

Rodents and pocket pets

Hamsters, gerbils, mice, guinea pigs, and ferrets often carry salmonella even when they look healthy. These and other germs can infect humans, causing diarrhea, skin infections, and other illness. If they’re exposed to wild rodents or sick animals, they can share viruses that cause serious illnesses in humans. For these reasons, they may not be good choices for someone getting cancer treatment.

If you choose to keep pets like these, they should stay inside and away from other animals that may have infections. Habitats should not be kept in children’s rooms. Cages, toys, food and water bowls should be cleaned outside, and kept away from eating and food areas. Use the precautions above when petting, feeding, cleaning cages, or handling their toys. Keep ferret vaccines up to date.

Other exotic pets

Animals that normally live in the wild are not recommended for people with weak immune systems. They can carry rare but serious diseases. Monkeys, chinchillas, primates, and other exotic pets may also be more likely to bite.

Children with cancer and 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. Some pets that are fine for adults can pose more of a hazard to children. It’s best to avoid getting a new pet if your child has a weak immune system. This is even more important if the child might be getting a bone marrow or stem cell transplant.

All of the information about pets and adults with cancer also applies to pets in a household where a child has cancer. When kids are too young to follow the precautions, they shouldn’t interact with pets. Even older children might need your help.

  • Adults should supervise the time a child spends with pets.
  • Don’t allow kissing, food sharing, or rough play.
  • With smaller kids, don’t let them 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.

If you have questions, be sure to talk with your child's doctor. You can also check with your pet's veterinarian about diseases your child could pick up.

 

 

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 journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Cancer.Net. Food safety during and after cancer treatment. 2018. Accessed at https://www.cancer.net/survivorship/healthy-living/food-safety-during-and-after-cancer-treatment on August 30, 2019.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Pets and other animals. 2017. Accessed at https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/pets/index.html on August 29, 2019.

Freifeld AG, Kaul DR. Infection in the patient With cancer. In Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Kastan MB, Doroshow JH, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020: 544-562.

NIH U.S. National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus. Pets and the immunocompromised person. 2019. Accessed at https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003967.htm on August 29, 2019.

 

References

Cancer.Net. Food safety during and after cancer treatment. 2018. Accessed at https://www.cancer.net/survivorship/healthy-living/food-safety-during-and-after-cancer-treatment on August 30, 2019.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Pets and other animals. 2017. Accessed at https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/pets/index.html on August 29, 2019.

Freifeld AG, Kaul DR. Infection in the patient With cancer. In Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Kastan MB, Doroshow JH, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020: 544-562.

NIH U.S. National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus. Pets and the immunocompromised person. 2019. Accessed at https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003967.htm on August 29, 2019.

 

Last Revised: February 1, 2020

American Cancer Society medical information is copyrighted material. For reprint requests, please see our Content Usage Policy.