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 a pet’s saliva on your skin.
  • Any vomit should be cleaned up by someone else if possible, while wearing waterproof disposable gloves.


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.

If you’re unable to care for your pets

It’s important to have a plan for your pets in case you get too sick to care for them or must be in the hospital. It’s better to make these plans and never need them than to be caught off guard and worried about your pet. Even if you stay in your home, you might need help with daily activities like walking your dog or cleaning the litter box. 

Here are some tips to make sure your pets are safe and cared for throughout treatment:

  • Keep written instructions for feeding, cleaning, toileting, medicines, and vet contacts.
  • Know where pets can and can’t go. Most healthcare settings do not allow pets for health and safety reasons.
  • Find someone you trust who would be willing to care for your pets if you end up needing help. Make sure they know the plan and have instructions for your pet’s care.
  • If your pet is microchipped, you can add a trusted caretaker as a contact in the microchip database in case they are lost and taken to a shelter or vet.