When I was undergoing chemotherapy, one of my biggest sources of comfort was my late Chihuahua, Mr. Tude. He was very old, arthritic and grumpy, but he was content to cuddle with me in my bed of suffering. He provided a warm and furry bundle of love for me to cling to, and I was grateful.
Recently, I saw some postings on breastcancer.org about the role that companion animals played in other patients’ cancer experience, and I realized that the comfort that animals provide can be significant. At the very least, they seem to reduce stress, and stress is a promoter of cancer.
Many people posted wonderful stories about their “comfort dogs.” Some felt closer to their dogs than to humans through their journey. They said that their dogs intuitively knew when they were sad or in pain and needed a buddy to be with, and those dogs never left their sides. And, unlike humans, they never said the wrong thing.
One said her dog saved her life. Before she was diagnosed, he kept sticking his nose under her right armpit. After being ignored for days, he finally stomped hard on her right breast, and that’s when she felt the lump. Because she was young, the doctor didn’t want to do a mammogram until he was convinced by hearing about the dog’s behavior.
Another talked about her Great Dane who would push his face or his paw into her left breast. Eventually she wondered why it hurt so much. She did a self- exam and found the lump. After the diagnosis, the dog stayed with her, nuzzled her, and brought her comfort.
Several others chimed in, saying that it wasn’t just dogs that were comfort animals; their cats also helped. They noted how their cats became more gentle when their humans were recovering from surgery, avoiding jumping on their chests, and watching over them.
One reader said that the animal most helpful to her was her horse. Before she was diagnosed, the horse would head-bump her left breast, apparently trying to warn her about the cancer. After her treatment, the horse would rest his head on top of her head instead of bumping her. She said that she fought cancer more for the horse than for anything else, because he had been orphaned at a young age and did not deserve another loss.
There was even a story about a big yellow snake who was a comfort animal, and a bearded dragon lizard. Apparently, the common stereotype that reptiles are lacking in feeling is false, at least some of the time.
There have been so many reports about the benefits of pets, that scientists have begun studying the issue. A recent study documented increases in cancer patients’ quality of life and emotional well-being after 15-20 minute visits with therapy dogs. They concluded that the therapy dogs eased patients’ anxiety and elevated their mood; lessened feelings of isolation and loneliness; provided distraction from, pain, boredom, or stress; caused the release of calming and relaxing endorphins; motivated patients to get better; and increased socialization and encouraged communication.