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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.
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.
A number of illnesses can be spread via pet droppings, and a few spread through urine.
A few illnesses can be transmitted by saliva, so it’s best not to let your pet lick open cuts or near your mouth.
Some germs can be picked up by touching or petting the animal. That’s why washing your hands after pet contact is important.
Here are some tips that can help keep you safe during cancer treatment.
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.
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:
There are also resources available if you need pet support during your cancer treatment. See Pets, Support, and Service Animals for more information.
People with weak immune systems (especially those getting a stem cell transplant or bone marrow transplant) should not keep reptiles. Snakes, turtles, lizards, and iguanas are very common carriers of salmonella, which can be lethal in people with very weak immune function. This germ can live for some time on surfaces and objects that the animal touched. Because a person doesn’t have to handle the reptile to be exposed to this germ, it can be hard to avoid it.
People with very weak immune systems, especially those who are having stem cell transplants, should not have or come in contact with ducklings and chicks. Even as adults, chickens and ducks have a high risk of salmonella or campylobacter infection.
Hamsters, gerbils, mice, guinea pigs, and ferrets often carry salmonella even when they look healthy. These and other germs can infect humans, causing diarrhea, skin infections, and other illness. If they’re exposed to wild rodents or sick animals, they can share viruses that cause serious illnesses in humans. For these reasons, they may not be good choices for someone getting cancer treatment.
If you choose to keep pets like these, they should stay inside and away from other animals that may have infections. Habitats should not be kept in children’s rooms. Cages, toys, food and water bowls should be cleaned outside, and kept away from eating and food areas. Use the precautions above when petting, feeding, cleaning cages, or handling their toys. Keep ferret vaccines up to date.
Animals that normally live in the wild are not recommended for people with weak immune systems. They can carry rare but serious diseases. Monkeys, chinchillas, primates, and other exotic pets may also be more likely to bite.
Children tend to be at higher risk for infection from pets than adults, because they’re more likely to crawl on the floor with the pet and put things in their mouths. Some pets that are fine for adults can pose more of a hazard to children. It’s best to avoid getting a new pet if your child has a weak immune system. This is even more important if the child might be getting a bone marrow or stem cell transplant.
All of the information about pets and adults with cancer also applies to pets in a household where a child has cancer. When kids are too young to follow the precautions, they shouldn’t interact with pets. Even older children might need your help.
If you have questions, be sure to talk with your child's doctor. You can also check with your pet's veterinarian about diseases your child could pick up.
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
Cancer.Net. Food safety during and after cancer treatment. 2018. Accessed at https://www.cancer.net/survivorship/healthy-living/food-safety-during-and-after-cancer-treatment on August 30, 2019.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Pets and other animals. 2017. Accessed at https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/pets/index.html on August 29, 2019.
Freifeld AG, Kaul DR. Infection in the patient With cancer. In Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Kastan MB, Doroshow JH, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020: 544-562.
NIH U.S. National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus. Pets and the immunocompromised person. 2019. Accessed at https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003967.htm on August 29, 2019.
Last Revised: February 9, 2023