The Catastrophizing Owner
Does owner emotion and behaviour affect the health, wellbeing, or remission of an animal diagnosed with cancer.
I had to give a ‘tough love lecture’ not that long ago. I have clients whose dog has been diagnosed with an aggressive form of mammary cancer. If the dog hadn’t been tender in the area, they never would have known. She’s perky, bright, alert, and sassy! The owners opted not to do chemotherapy but were looking for what they could do instead. So, I got them in touch with a Traditional Chinese Medicine doctor that also works on animals. That’s been great. However, the owners have been having a hard time with their emotions about the situation. They admitted that all of the staring at their dog was making the her seem self-conscious! Two other dogs in the house got into a huge fight. They next noted that the dog had gone off of her food. I had to intervene!
So, I worked out a time to call them. I told them about all of the things that I made my husband and I watch, read, and listen to after he was initially diagnosed with his cancer (3.5 years ago). Why? Well, because the mind is a powerful tool for healing (or for not healing). It might not be the only factor, but it certainly can have a huge impact. So, I told my clients, “I have to give you a ‘tough love lecture’… because I think you are having a negative impact not only on our patient, but on all of the dogs in your home.” Ironically, the TCM doctor gave them a similar lecture. The lectures were about being positive, about treating their dog like ‘normal’, about believing in the treatment they were choosing for her. Long story short. The lecture(s) was/were heard and received, and the owners started behaving differently… and it is making a difference in their home, and with our canine patient who is now back to being full of life.
That got me thinking about whether there is literature on the subject of the role that owner’s emotions or behaviours have on their pets. Here’s what I found!
There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that the emotional and behavioral states of animal owners can have a significant impact on the health and wellbeing of their pets, including those with cancer. Several studies have investigated the relationship between owner attitudes and behaviors and the health outcomes of animals with cancer, and the results suggest that owner factors can have a significant impact on the course of the disease.
One study conducted by researchers at the University of California, Davis found that the emotional and social support provided by owners to their dogs with cancer was associated with improved survival times and quality of life (1). Another study conducted by researchers at the University of Glasgow found that dogs whose owners reported higher levels of stress and anxiety were more likely to have tumors with more aggressive features (2).
A review of the literature on owner attitudes and pet health outcomes published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association concluded that "owner attitudes and behaviors can significantly impact pet health and disease outcomes" (3). The authors of the review suggest that owner education and support programs may be beneficial in improving the health outcomes of pets with cancer.
There are several mechanisms by which owner factors may impact the health and wellbeing of animals with cancer. One possible mechanism is through the stress response. Stressful situations can activate the body's stress response, which can lead to the release of stress hormones such as cortisol. Chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels have been linked to a range of health problems, including immune dysfunction and increased risk of cancer (4). It is possible that the stress experienced by owners of pets with cancer could impact the animal's health by inducing chronic stress and compromising their immune system.
Another possible mechanism by which owner factors may impact the health of pets with cancer is through the quality of care provided. Owners who are more engaged and proactive in their pet's care may be more likely to provide adequate nutrition, exercise, and medical care, which can have a positive impact on the course of the disease (5).
All in all, there does seem to be evidence to suggest that owner factors, including emotional and behavioral states, can have a significant impact on the health and wellbeing of animals with cancer. As such, pet owners should be aware of the potential impact of their own attitudes and behaviors on their pet's health and should work to provide the best possible care and support for their animals.
Tuck this away in the back of you minds… you too might be required to pull out a ‘tough love lecture’ for your clients as well.
Have a great week!
1. Uchida Y, et al. Emotional and social support predicts survival in dogs with cancer. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine. 2013;27(3):479-485.
2. Fogle JE, et al. Association between stress, anxiety, and tumor development in dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2018;253(11):1425-1432.
3. Farnham AC, et al. Owner attitudes and pet health outcomes. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 2018;253(11):1397-1405.
4. McEwen BS. Protective and damaging effects of stress mediators. New England Journal of Medicine. 1998;338(3):171-179.
5. Lazenby M, et al. Prognostic importance of self-reported appetite loss in dogs with lymphoma. Journal of Small Animal Practice. 2015;56(8):464-470.