Hester Hill Schnipper Photo courtesy of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

DECIDING TO BRING A PET INTO ONE’S LIFE is a huge decision. While cancer treatment may feel like a strange time to open yourself up to the added responsibility of a dog or cat, many people have joyfully welcomed a pet into their home during cancer treatment or shortly thereafter.

I fondly remember three women who participated in one of my cancer support groups who all adopted puppies from the same litter. Once the first woman had opened her home to the puppy, her delight was infectious. And as a bonus, the three women and their dogs remained close for many years.

Caring for a pet during the long months of uncertain treatment may seem counterintuitive. In addition to contending with all of life’s usual demands, a person who is receiving treatment must also manage multiple appointments, expenses and days when they can’t get out of bed.

But I’d argue those moments can be a time when we especially need support and comfort. Admittedly, I am biased. And if you aren’t someone who likes dogs or cats, there’s no need to read ahead. But if you, like me, get a certain strength from a faithful furry friend, I encourage you to consider the possibility. With a four-legged companion, you are never alone.

Here are some important considerations when deciding whether to open your heart and home to a pet:

1) Consider the type of pet you want, given your lifestyle. A puppy requires a great deal of attention and energy, while an older dog is likely to be less demanding but will need to adjust to a new home. A cat is usually less work and may be content to sit on the bed next to you on difficult days without asking for much in return.

2) When deciding on a pet, consider your life after cancer treatment. How will your pet fit into your routine once you have resumed your usual responsibilities?

3) Get recommendations for reputable dog breeders or rescue shelters from friends.

4) If you are considering a puppy, learn about the future adult version of your dog. Pay attention to size, usual temperament and exercise needs.

5) Plan to have a backup care plan for days when you will be away for hours of medical appointments or when you won’t feel well enough to provide needed walks or care.

6) Protect yourself from infections. Cancer treatment can compromise your immune system. You will need someone to clean a cat’s litter box. A dog’s instinct will be to lick surgical wounds or radiation burns, which can lead to infection. 

7) Be honest about your finances. Cancer is expensive. Consider whether the additional costs for a pet put animal ownership out of reach for the time being.

8) As painful as it may be to consider, have a plan for your new dog’s care if you are too ill or treatment is not successful. Talk to your family about this.

9) As a cancer survivor who depended heavily on my dog for comfort during and after treatment, I encourage those with the means and desire to consider pet ownership. You might find the benefits of companionship far outweigh the cost and extra effort.

Hester Hill Schnipper, a licensed independent clinical social worker, is a breast cancer survivor who served as the manager of oncology social work at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.