PAW Program provides aid to cancer patients with pets

For many, pets provide tremendous solace during the most physically and emotionally challenging moments of treatment

While pet ownership provides emotional and mental support to cancer patients, the financial challenges it entails can become a stressor.
While pet ownership provides emotional and mental support to cancer patients, the financial challenges it entails can become a stressor.

A cancer diagnosis can be a devastating gut punch that plunges the patient into a spiral of fear, anxiety, and depression as they struggle to navigate the challenges of treatment and recovery. Hardships can range from financial difficulties to a less-than-understanding workplace, to a lack of reliable transportation; all of which can have an adverse impact on treatment outcomes.

Many cancer patients also face issues related to their pets, experts report. For example, the financial impact of treatment may make it more difficult for them to pay for pet food and veterinary care. Their treatment may make them immunocompromised, or too weak to take their pets for daily walks.

Further, the toxic compounds that are part of their treatment may pose a serious health risk to their loving, four-footed companions.

CancerCare, a national organization that has provided assistance to cancer patients for nearly eight decades, aids pet owners in cancer crisis via its Pet Assistance & Wellness (PAW) Program. “I looked into the kinds of financial and educational support available to cancer patients as they struggled to maintain their pets during treatment, and there was very little out there,” says CancerCare CEO Patricia Goldsmith. “That’s where the vision for this program came from.”

According to the CancerCare website, the key features of the PAW Program include:

  • Education focused on pet care throughout a patient’s cancer journey.
  • No-cost case management, counseling, and support groups.
  • Limited financial assistance to qualified individuals undergoing active cancer treatment who live with a dog or cat. Assistance may be used to off-set the cost of pet food, boarding, caregiving services or veterinary expenses.

The importance of pet ownership to cancer patients cannot be overstated. For many, pets provide tremendous solace during the most physically and emotionally challenging moments of treatment.

“We surveyed our clients to understand the challenges they were going through, and 34 percent of them who received financial assistance from the PAW Program reported their pet was their only form of support in the household while they were undergoing cancer treatment,” says Goldsmith, who was supported through her own cancer journey by her great Pyrenees, Sully. “For many, the financial challenges of pet ownership, such as food or healthcare, are additional stressors. But we can help.”

Sondra Oliver, DVM, R.Ph., a veterinarian at Bayside Animal Medical Center in Severna Park, Maryland, is active in promoting CancerCare’s PAW Program. She became aware of CancerCare through a mutual friend, and was impressed with the organization’s scope of services–especially its efforts to help cancer patients maintain their pets while undergoing treatment. “In my own practice, I had a few clients confide to me their healthcare crises and ask, how do I take care of my pet?” says Dr. Oliver. “So, I felt this was a very timely program because of the financial and supportive resources they offer.”

One cat’s love

Fumiko Chino, MD, a radiation oncologist in New York, is also helping spread the word by publicly sharing her story of love, loss, and personal growth. It all began when Dr. Chino fell in love with Andrew, a devoted cat lover who developed an aggressive form of neuroendocrine carcinoma at age 26.

“As he was getting sicker and sicker, I realized the opportunity to get an animal that could help comfort Andrew and provide some joy was getting shorter and shorter, so close to the end of his life we adopted a cat named Franklin,” Chino recalls. “He provided a lot of comfort to my husband when he was going through some pretty intense treatments. What I didn’t anticipate was the benefit Franklin gave to my husband would also help me in terms of comfort and companionship. Franklin saved my life, to be honest.”

Chino was emotionally bereft when Andrew died. She decided to become an oncologist and received support from Franklin in that endeavor, as well. “He provided that extra layer of support and companionship and love that really helped me through medical school, residency and postgraduate training,” she says. “So, I transitioned from a grudging cat owner to an animal enthusiast.”

Pets can be extremely important to cancer patients during treatment and after. For example, dogs and cats provide an opportunity for exercise and companionship, among other attributes. However, it is important for patients, their medical care team, and their veterinarians to acknowledge the potential risks to patients and pets throughout an owner’s cancer journey.

“I know there are a number of concerns regarding treatment,” says Oliver. “The big question I hear is, ‘How will my radiation or chemotherapy affect my pet?’ For the most part, there shouldn’t be a problem. There are, however, certain situations where you might need to take precautions, such as if you have some sort of permanent radioactive implant, which can make a person temporarily radioactive. I would encourage patients to talk with their health team regarding limitations to interacting with their pets. They should be able to provide a timeframe.”

When a patient receives chemotherapy at home, care should be taken with tubing and other components that a frisky cat might see as a toy and start batting around. Equal care should be taken to ensure that pets can’t access medications or materials that have touched medications such as tissues or paper towels.

Accidental consumption

According to Oliver, the most common signs of accidental medication poisoning are extreme lethargy, vomiting, and diarrhea.

“If a patient suspects their pet has accidentally consumed something, they should bring it to their veterinarian right away,” Oliver says. “We can give the animal a medication that will make it throw up within minutes, and then we can assess the gastric contents.”

Pets can also pose a risk to their owners, Oliver explains, because cancer patients may become immunocompromised, which means their infection-fighting capacity is very low. Should this occur, their oncologist will note precautions. For those who are immunocompromised, a minor scratch or animal bite can cause a serious infection that may require treatment. To avoid this risk, owners should make sure their pet’s claws are trimmed, that it is up to date on all of its vaccinations and preventatives, and that the animal is free of zoonotic parasites that can be passed on to humans.

“When people undergo a life-altering diagnosis like cancer, they should be able to have as much stability and emotional support at home as they can, and I feel pet ownership provides a good amount of that,” Oliver concludes. “I believe it’s really important for them to keep their family intact because it adds something positive to their treatment, as well as boosts their immune system and relieves some of the stress they are feeling.”  


There are a variety of pet-related educational services available on the CancerCare website, including factsheets and videos, such as:

  • Living with Your Pet After a Cancer Diagnosis
  • The Benefits of Sharing Your Life with a Pet
  • What to Know if You are Undergoing Radiation Therapy and Have a Pet
  • What to Know if You are Undergoing Chemotherapy and Have a Pet

In addition, there is a Veterinarian Flyer for Cancer Patients and Their Loved Ones with Pets, and a Question Guide for Patients with Pets to Ask Their Provider Team.

Cancer patients and their caregivers can access the PAW Program services through:

  • Toll-free Hopeline: (800) 813-4673. Talk to a trained social worker for more info.

Don Vaughan is an award-winning writer who frequently writes about veterinary-related topics.

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