Caring for a Pet with Cancer

Facing a cancer diagnosis of a loved one is difficult on many levels. When your companion animal has been diagnosed with cancer, it is easy to feel helpless. There are steps that you can take to educate yourself and care for your animal with cancer. The following ten steps will ease your stress and help you understand what to do when you hear the words: “your pet has cancer.”

1. Recognize that cancer in pets is common.

The fact that your pet developed cancer is not unusual. As your pet ages, their immune system weakens and cancer becomes a higher risk, just like in humans. You and your pet are not alone during these difficult times.

According to the Veterinary Cancer Society, cancer is the main cause of death in 47% of dogs (especially dogs over age ten) and 32% of cats. Dogs get cancer at about the same rate as humans, while cats have fewer cancers. There are over 100 types of cancers in dogs. Mast cell tumors are the most common in dogs. The most common cancers in cats are leukemia and lymphoma. Most times cancer is found in aging animals, but some breeds have higher rates of cancer than others.

 2. Learn About Your Pet’s Cancer

Your pet has been diagnosed with cancer. Cancer is a disease that results from the uncontrolled growth of cells in the body. Cancers are often named for the type of cell that is growing out of control. The terms cancer, malignancy, and neoplasia may be used interchangeably – they are just different ways to say cancer.

There are many types of cancer and each behaves differently. Some forms of cancer have the ability to spread to other sites in the body, which may be far from the original site. This occurs because these cancer cells can enter the blood or lymph vessels and be carried to other organs. When the cancer has spread to other areas of the body, it is called metastasis.

As for any diagnosis, in a pet or a person, educate yourself on the options, costs involved, and the pros and cons to treating your pet.

 3. Understand Your Pet’s Treatment Options

There are several types of therapies used to treat cancer in companion animals. These include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and immunotherapy. For some cancers, treatment will consist of a single type of therapy, while others may require combination therapy (2 or more different therapies).

4. Consider consulting with a Veterinary Oncologist

When your pet is diagnosed with cancer, you may be uncertain about the choices presented to you. Just as we do in human medicine, you may get a second opinion from a board-certified veterinary oncologist. This may confirm a chosen course of treatment or open up new options for your pet.

We have a Veterinary Oncologist that we work with regularly and would be happy to make a referral.  You can also find them on the helpful Veterinary Cancer Society website, which offers resources for pet owners, including “Find a specialist in your area.”

5. Think about Your Pet’s Quality of Life

Cancer treatment for animals focuses on alleviating pain and suffering, along with extending life, as long as the quality of that life can be preserved. Treatment is typically much less aggressive than in humans.

What makes your pet’s day? Is it a swim in the local pond, sunbathing on the front porch, a long walk in the woods, or just snuggling up with you.  When your animal cannot enjoy these activities, or they cause more discomfort, their quality of life is compromised. Sometimes your veterinarian can offer symptom management to alleviate pain and suffering, and sometimes, when quality of life is impacted, we need to think about euthanasia.

  1. Keep a normal routine

Fun activities like exercising, walks, and playtime will help to maintain a healthy mindset for both you and your pet. Our pets like routine. It helps them stay active and engaged, especially if they will have to make many visits to the vet for treatment.

7. Be hopeful and realistic.

Our pets need us, and we need them. Although some animals may experience transient discomfort from therapy, treatment of most pets with cancer can be accomplished without major distress or taking away from your pet’s enjoyment of life. Just because an animal has been diagnosed with cancer does not mean its life is immediately over. Your commitment to your pet and your veterinarian’s dedication to providing state-of-the-art care will work together to keep your pet as happy as possible for as long as possible.