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Featuring Demian Dressler, DVM and Susan Ettinger, DVM, Dip. ACVIM (Oncology), authors of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide

Better Life Quality: Play with Your Dog with Cancer

Updated: October 1st, 2018

Summary

How important is it to play with your dog with cancer? Very!

play-for-dog-cancerWe love it when our dogs want to play. The repeated nudges and insistent offers of their toys are charming, aren’t they?

Just like us, a dog who doesn’t feel well may go through periods of not wanting to play, or being too tired or not physically capable of regular play. Responding to surgery, chemo or radiation treatments, and just the exhaustion of the emotions and perhaps the tension of vet visits affects them, just as it does us. Even our wonderful senior animals, with or without a cancer diagnosis, may appear to be “past” the playful stage of their lives.

We can get so wrapped up in the drama of their situation that we may over-encourage rest and quiet.

“Don’t use your energy, Ziggy.”

“You’ve got to rest and heal, Oreo.”

It’s so easy to forget how important — and actually healing — play can be for us all.

Yes. It’s important to play with your dog with cancer!

Using Joy to Heal

In The Dog Cancer Survival Guide Dr. Dressler has included valuable information about dealing with our own emotional state.  Our dogs are so sensitive to our moods, the last thing we want is for them to take on our depression or worry.  We need stress relief and joy; our dogs need stress relief and joy.

Your Dog’s Job Is Joy!

In addition, our dogs want something to do. A job. A purpose. Play fulfills this need beautifully. Here are some suggestions to modify the usual games for our recovering pets, and bring back the joy for us both.

Ball Fetch: My boys and girls spent their youth flying down hills and across fields to get the prized tennis ball.  When my senior could no longer walk I discovered he still loved that ball:  I just had to change the game.

I’d sit in front of his bed and tempt him with the ball.  As the temptation grew he’d follow my magician’s hands. Where’s the ball?  I’d bounce it in front of him, closer, further away, closer again. When he started reaching for it with open jaws and bright eyes I aimed the bounces to land just in front of his nose.  He’d catch it and chew with complete joy, then spit it back at me for another go.

Involving my family in ‘keep away’ teasing added to the fun and within minutes we were laughing and my dog was thoroughly enjoying his ball again. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t chased it.  He’d caught it, and the prize was his!

Puzzle Toys:  The pet industry is full of great choices in puzzle toys these days.  Everything from balls in which you can hide treats like the Ethical Contempo Halo Food and Treat Dispense for Dogs, to Nina Ottoson’s Interactive Dog Toy and the Ethical Pet Seek-a-Treat- Shuffle Bone Dog Puzzle.  You can find these and many variations, and we’ve listed a great selection in the Dog Cancer Shop.

The secret to all of these toys, though, is that you play with your dog with cancer.  Our busy lives are such that we’re used to handing over a toy and walking away. How much better is it to play the puzzle with your dog? Add your excitement to hers as she wonders where the treat is?

Find-It Games: “Find-it” doesn’t have to be a high-speed chase game outside.  Simply playing “which hand” adds a dose of joy to the regular “here’s your treat” action.  Showing the treat, then hiding a few in another room and taking your dog in to look together is easy and fun.  Don’t hesitate to ask for the old bargain, a ‘speak’ for a treat or a ‘paw’ for a treat. They love to be involved.

Tug and Tussle: It doesn’t need to be rough play, but this variation of keep-away gets their juices flowing and tails wagging.

Food Games: My dog loves his food, and we hand-feed because of his throat surgery. A few months ago I found myself in a routine.

1. Make good food.

2. Feed good food to dog.

3. Done.

I was just feeding spoon after spoon like a robot.  It was time for a wake-up call!  No longer did the food simply appear before his mouth. Occasionally I would present it just near enough that he’d reach for it.  Or I’d offer it higher, or lower than before, or circle it round his nose. Where would the food be next?

He became more involved and more interested because I was more involved and interested.  He got back at me, too, when he wouldn’t let go of the spoon. Who says dogs don’t have a sense of humor?

Licking and Chewing: Dogs release tension through their jaw, and we know how much our pets love leisurely licking their paws or a nice treat. Using a Kong, or a kong-like toy is a great way to give them long periods of content.  Fill one with a little bit of healthy peanut butter, honey, or some of your own healthy, pureed food that will stick to the inside.  If your dog cannot hold it for any reason, join in and hold it for him.

You can also make tasty ice-licks. I take the chicken broth from my cooking, fill very small saucers and freeze them.  My dog loves licking the tasty, cold treat.  However, don’t leave them alone with it …  once the ice is gone he may forget that the saucer isn’t edible!  Chicken broth ice cubes are also a great treat, and frozen treats are easy to make and keep.

Laugh:  Finally, I found a wonderful and surprising resource; Laughing Dog.  The website explains how dogs vocalize when they are happy, and gives a brief demo on how to mimic their laugh.  Other resources are available along with the research that went into the development.  I regularly laugh with all my dogs, and you know what? They laugh along with me.

These are just a few suggestions to try. And here’s another: remember to bring variation into the environment too. Move your dog’s bed around with the sunshine, because the vitamin D is so important for them. If your dog is often confined inside, wrap her up and take her out.  Go for short drives. Sit on the floor together while you watch TV. Share a bowl of popcorn. Offer different bedding options. Take a nap on the floor with him.

Don’t just tell him how much you love him, tell him how happy you are that he is your dog.

Now’s the Time:

I’ve spoken to so many people who feel as I do; that this journey has actually brought me closer to my dog in ways I hadn’t considered before.  Enjoy the moments. None of us know what’s ahead, but it’s really not as important as this moment, right now.  So thank you for reading, and I hope this helps you to remember to play with your dog with cancer!

Now get off your computer and go play!

Happy tails!

Discover the Full Spectrum Approach to Dog Cancer

Leave a Comment





  1. Susan Kazara Harper on January 29, 2014 at 10:21 am

    I’m so sorry that Becca passed, but it sounds as if you both had wonderful days. Recognizing energy levels and offering play and the simple opportunity to have fun together is priceless at any time of life. I know she’ll always be close in your heart.

  2. Kate Obrien on January 28, 2014 at 4:05 am

    Great article and great reminder of the power of play. Our Lab Becca passed from osteosarcoma almost 2 years ago now. She had a tough time as we treated her with radiation and chemo and she was pretty sick. Whenever she felt up to it, she would pick up her ball and even if it was a little 5 feet toss, we would always play with her. It was a real sign to us that she felt good enough to do it, so I was going to let her enjoy it.