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A pet cancer diagnosis can feel scary, overwhelming and devastating. Your veterinarian understands these emotions, as well as your worries about the future and the anxiety you might feel about treatment options. The good news is that advances in veterinary oncology result in cancer remission for many pets and improve their quality and quantity of life. If your furry family member has been diagnosed with cancer, this article can help guide you through the journey.
Pet Cancer Diagnosis
To confirm whether your pet has cancer, your vet will evaluate their overall health and run some tests. Preliminary testing often includes blood and urine tests, microscopic evaluation of cells or samples from any tumors, and imaging studies such as radiographs (X-rays) and abdominal ultrasounds. These tests provide basic information about your pet's health and help determine if cancer is present, the type of cancer and whether it has spread to other organs. This information allows your vet, or a vet certified in veterinary oncology, to give you a prognosis and recommend treatment.
Pet Cancer Treatment
The available pet cancer treatment options are much the same as cancer treatments for humans. The main difference is that pets tend to have fewer negative side effects with chemotherapy: They rarely get nauseated or lose their hair. Your pet is likely to have a better chance of survival if you follow the treatment plan laid out by your vet, which can include one or more of the following therapies.
Surgery is used to remove cancerous growths and may be curative with some cancers, such as in complete removal of a low-grade mast cell tumor. Surgery can also be used in conjunction with other treatments to completely remove cancer from your pet's body.
This method uses medication to kill cancer cells and is part of most cancer treatment plans. Chemotherapy drugs can be taken orally in pill form or administered intravenously by a veterinary professional.
Radiation is used to shrink tumors before surgery, kill cancer cells that are left behind after surgery and slow down cancer growth in parts of the body where surgery isn't possible — in the nose, for example. Pets usually require several doses of radiation.
Immunotherapy uses a vaccine to stimulate a pet's immune system to fight off cancer cells. This therapy is used in canine melanoma and is being explored as an option to treat osteosarcoma.
Pet cancer can't always be cured. Palliative care focuses on maximizing your pet's quality of life during the time they have. This may involve controlling pain, minimizing nausea and helping you understand when it's time to say goodbye. Palliative surgery may be used to stop pain, especially in dogs diagnosed with bone cancer. Also, a conversation with your veterinarian about suggested nutrition & food during a palliative phase is important. The silver lining is that palliative care can often provide weeks to months of quality pain-free time with your pet you might not have otherwise had — and that's truly precious.
What to Expect When Your Pet Has Cancer
Depending on the type of cancer your pet has, their overall health and age and the treatments they're receiving, there may be some changes at home. For example:
- If your pet has had surgery, they'll need time and at-home care to recover.
- Your pet may sleep more and eat less if they have a type of cancer that causes loss of appetite or energy. Don't push them to exercise, and let them self-regulate their activity. If you have a dog, continue to take them outside daily for fresh air and sunshine. If your pet isn't eating, your vet may prescribe an appetite stimulant or change their food.
- If your pet has brain cancer, you might notice changes in cognition such as loss of learned behaviors. They may also develop seizures, which will need to be managed with medication.
- Cancer or cancer treatments can sometimes cause urine or bowel control issues, requiring more frequent potty breaks or diapers.
- Expect frequent veterinary visits. If your pet is receiving treatment, your vet will need to do additional testing during and after treatment to assess how well it's working.
When your pet is under palliative care, it can be hard to know when they need veterinary intervention and when it's time to say goodbye. Lap of Love has a quality-of-life assessment tool that can help. The concept of caregiver burden in humans caring for other sick humans is well documented, but according to Psychology Today, it's also real in people who are caring for chronically ill pets. If you're the caregiver, take care of yourself and enlist support where you can. Organizations such as PrizedPals can help you form a circle of support when you need it most.
A pet cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming, but your vet is here to help you navigate the process. Grieving is also a normal part of dealing with pet cancer. If you're struggling, consider reaching out to a licensed therapist to help you cope so you can make the most of the time you have left with your precious pet.
Dr. Sarah Wooten
A 2002 graduate of UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and certified veterinary journalist, Dr. Sarah Wooten has 16 years experience in small animal veterinary practice, is a well known international speaker and writer in the veterinary and animal health care spaces, and is passionate about helping pet parents learn how to care better for their fur friends.