Just as in humans, dogs and cats are susceptible to many forms of cancer. Since our patients are living longer and healthier lives, veterinarians are unfortunately seeing an increase number of cancer cases as dogs and cats age. Though disheartening for a pet owner to find out that their dog or cat has cancer, the diagnosis is not a reason to lose hope in many situations.
Older pets are more likely to be diagnosed with cancer, but younger patients are not immune. Certain breeds are also more susceptible to certain types of cancer. However, pets that are “pure breeds” may still develop different forms of tumors.
Common signs of cancer include palpable skin tumors, lethargy, loss of appetite, weight loss and/or pain. We strongly recommend that any “lumps or bumps” that you may feel on your pet be brought to the attention of your veterinarian promptly. This is just one of the many reasons why it is vital for your pet to be examined by your veterinarian at least once a year.
Diagnosing cancer can be straightforward or often very difficult, depending on its type, location and stage of development. The diagnosis starts with a thorough history and physical examination by your veterinarian and frequently involves radiographs, ultrasonography and needle aspirates for cytology. Ultimately, a definitive diagnosis is made with surgical biopsies.
Fortunately, there are many humane treatment options available for pets with cancer. The primary goal is always for a cure, but never at the expense of compromising the pet’s quality of life. If a cure is not likely, then the goal is to prolong the pet’s quality of life for as long as possible, provided they are kept comfortable. The treatments that are chosen are influenced by the type of cancer and it’s stage of development. The location is also very important, primarily if it has spread to other parts of the body (metastatic disease).
Essentially there are three options available: Surgery is most often required, not only to obtain tissue biopsy sample for a diagnosis, but also to hopefully remove all the cancer cells that are present. We have removed countless skin tumors from dogs and cats, but have also removed many tumors from internal organs, such as the liver, spleen, stomach and intestines.
Chemotherapy is another treatment modality that is often chosen and usually performed by a veterinary oncologist at a specialty practice. Many pet owners initially think that it would be inhumane to “put their pets through” chemotherapy due to side effects that they have witnessed in friends or family who have undergone treatments. Many of the same drugs that are used in humans are also used for dogs and cats. However, they are never used at the frequency or dosages that would cause the side effects observed in humans. As veterinarians, we never want our treatments to be worse than the diseases we are trying to cure. Pets very infrequently will lose their hair after chemotherapy and will occasionally have short-term nausea, which can usually be prevented. Low white blood cell counts can also occur, but can be monitored safely with periodic blood tests. Our experience has been that pets undergoing chemotherapy protocols usually have a very good quality of life, are more active and tend to have good appetites. The vast majority of our clients that opt for chemotherapy are very glad they chose it for their pets.
Radiation Therapy has also become a frequent treatment choice. It is most often combined with surgery to treat local types of cancer and can prevent or greatly delay the spread of cancer to other areas of the body. Side effects are usually managed well and short term in nature. These treatments do require sedation for pets to hold still and are done frequently over the course of 2-3 weeks. The great thing is that the pets wake up within minutes and walk out the door like they were never even sedated.
Though a diagnosis of cancer can be devastating for an owner and their pet, it is important to remember that there are many practical, viable and humane treatment options available. Our goal is to keep our beloved pets with us for as long as possible with a healthy and vibrant quality of life.