I treat patients with cancer every week. The most important aspect about this condition is staging it. Many tumors can be diagnosed simply by palpation. Others require biopsy and histopathological interpretation. Once diagnosed, the patient can often be treated medically or with surgery locally or in some cases must be referred to a veterinary oncologist.
“Cancer” is a word no one ever wants to hear from the mouth of a medical professional. Unfortunately, however, the disease is so widespread that most of us have been touched by it at some point in our lives, whether through our own health struggles or those of loved ones.
When a beloved pet receives a cancer diagnosis, it can be challenging, to say the least. It can also be confusing, because there are major differences between treatment for humans and animals. While the goal in human medicine is usually to try to save a life at all costs, veterinary medicine focuses on maintaining the pet’s quality of life by limiting side effects, pain, and discomfort—of both the cancer and the treatment. While cancer treatment is often started to prolong a dog or cat’s life, the primary emphasis is on quality of life, not quantity. Your veterinarian wants you to have as much quality time together as possible and will make recommendations accordingly.
To help veterinarians and pet owners decide how to best treat cancer in pets, the American Animal Hospital Association created oncology guidelines for dogs and cats. The top six things you need know about these guidelines:
Cancer in pets is very common. Because of improvements in pet nutrition, parasite prevention, vaccinations, and regular health screenings, our pets are living longer than ever before. What can be prevented is being prevented. But longer life expectancies mean that cancer is now the leading cause of death in dogs and cats.
Every pet’s cancer is different. Dogs and cats can develop the same wide variety of cancers that humans do. Your veterinarian will work step by step to understand your pet’s specific cancer, its location, whether it has spread, and which treatments could help your pet. This often requires a series of tests, including bloodwork, X-rays, biopsies, ultrasounds, and even CT or MRI scans to understand how advanced your pet’s cancer is. As you may know, this is called “staging.”
Your veterinarian understands your bond with your pet is strong. Because pets with cancer are often older and have been with their human companions for many years, your veterinarian understands this is a tough diagnosis to face. AAHA’s Oncology Guidelines stress the importance of compassion when communicating with pet owners about cancer and treatment options.
Meeting with an oncologist doesn’t mean committing to treatment. Veterinary oncologists specialize in the treatment of cancer in pets as well as guiding and supporting owners while they navigate through this complex journey. You’re not “on the hook” for a specific treatment plan if you schedule an appointment with a veterinary oncologist. The whole point is to empower you with information so you can explore your options and make the best decision for your family.
Chemotherapy for pets is different from chemo for humans. The intense side effects of human chemotherapy—in which survival is the ultimate goal—could be considered cruel to inflict upon an animal incapable of understanding what is happening. Instead, your veterinarian will work to balance maximum potency with minimal side effects. Chemotherapy for dogs and cats typically does not cause them to lose their fur or develop severe nausea. Pets might have a few “off” days between treatments, but otherwise should maintain normal energy levels.
Consider a multimodal approach. Your veterinary team can suggest a wide variety of treatments in addition to chemotherapy, radiation, and/or surgery. For instance, pets can benefit from pain management, anti-nausea medications, immunotherapy, and special diets. There are many tools to help provide the best quality of life for your pet.
What to ask your veterinarian about your pet’s cancer treatment
Can this type of cancer be “cured” or are treatments designed to extend my pet’s quality of life?
What procedures are necessary to “stage” my pet’s cancer?
How will my pet’s quality of life change if we initiate the various forms of treatment?
How will chemotherapy or radiation affect my pet?
Is the cancer likely to spread without surgery?
Will I need to travel to find a veterinary oncologist? If so, how often will I need to see them?
Can you estimate my pet’s life expectancy without treatment? What about with treatment?
How often will we need to test to see if the cancer has returned?
How can we help manage my pet’s pain?
How will I know if it’s time to stop treatment and consider hospice care or euthanasia?
Are there resources you can recommend, such as books, websites, counselors, or even nonprofits that help cover medical expenses for pets with cancer?
Dr. Lamb is the Veterinarian at the Manchester Animal Hospital.