Patricia Nitkin – Final PhD Defence (CNPS)

Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013, at 12:30 pm

Room 200, Graduate Student Center

Title:  “Relationships between people with cancer and their pets: what helps and what hinders.”


Supervisor:  Dr. Marla Buchanan (CNPS)

Supervisory Committee:  Dr. Bill Borgen (CNPS) and Dr. Marv Westwood (CNPS)

University Examiners:  Dr. Lynda Balneaves (Nursing) & Dr. Norm Amundson (CNPS)

External Examiner:  Dr. Alan Beck (Purdue University)



This qualitative research examined the little studied area of human-pet relationships and their impact on persons with cancer. The goal of this study was to gather information from individuals with cancer who had a pet during their illness and to explore the helpful and unhelpful aspects of that relationship as they dealt with the psychosocial and emotional challenges often accompanying diagnosis and treatment. The Enhanced Critical Incident Technique method (Butterfield, Borgen, Maglio, & Amundson, 2009) was used to gather information and interpret the interviews of 13 British Columbian women with cancer about their relationships with their companion animals. From these interviews, 13 Personal Accounts were created to give voice to the women’s experiences. The data focused on clear descriptions of the ways in which pets contributed to and/or detracted from the participants’ sense of wellbeing during their illness. From this 487 helping critical incidents and 109 hindering critical incidents were formed into 13 categories that represented the areas of impact. In rank order of participation rate the categories are: Companionship & Presence; Emotional & Social Support; Purpose & Role; How Pets are Different from People; Health and Pain Management; Pet Intuition & Adaptability; Being Positive & in the Moment; Pet as Protector & Caregiver; Touch; Unconditional Love & Devotion; Existential & Spiritual Factors; Family Members & Finances, and Caretaking of Sick or Dying Pet.

The findings of the study are congruent with the literature from the fields of veterinary medicine, social work, nursing, and anthrozoology in that they confirm the significant and primarily positive impact of the social support, trust and bond experienced by human beings with their pets. The results also indicate the distress caused by lack of resources for pets when one is ill, and the suffering caused by pet illness and bereavement. Other unique findings include participants’ experience of their pets as able to intuit subtle changes post-diagnosis and instantly modify their behaviour to attend to their human companions. It is recommended that psychological theory; practice and research adopt the exploration of companion animals as potential sources of support and/or challenge in people’s lives.