Getting a cancer diagnosis for your dog is like a punch to the gut (yours). The first thing to do is to sit down and take a deep breath. Many cancers are treatable, a few are curable, and there are many ways to give your dog quality time until the end, no matter what.
Where to Find Help
Your regular veterinarian may have experience with the cancer your dog has, but if not, consider a referral to an oncologist. This is especially important if your dog’s cancer will respond to radiation, as most clinics do not have the special equipment required for that therapy. For chemotherapy, the oncologist can write out a protocol that your veterinarian can follow. You can locate an oncologist via https://vetspecialists.com/what-is-a-board-certified-veterinary-oncology-specialist/
Spend the money to have your dog’s cancer graded or staged, if possible. That may require a biopsy and some extra lab fees, but it will give you a better idea on prognosis and it may influence the treatment plan. For example, if your dog already has metastases, a palliative care/hospice plan might be the best option.
Have questions prepared before your visit with the oncologist. You want to know best treatment, prognosis, side effects you could expect with treatment, a rough idea of costs, and what you can do at home to keep your dog comfortable. Don’t forget to bring a list of what you feed, any supplements your dog gets, and any preventive health treatments such as heartworm or flea and tick medications.
Deciding on Treatment
A cancer protocol will be customized for your dog. The oncologist and your veterinarian will take into consideration your dog’s current health (aside from the cancer) and what is reasonable for you and your dog. For instance, if your dog hates car rides, you might look for an effective chemotherapy protocol that concentrates on oral drugs you can give at home. If your dog is 15 years old and has severe arthritis, doing an amputation for bone cancer may not be reasonable – especially if you live in a third-floor walk-up apartment and own a Saint Bernard. Palliative or hospice care might be the best option. Health conditions such as kidney or liver failure, even if they are under control, will influence what treatments your dog can handle.
In general, dogs handle chemotherapy much better than people do. Doses are titrated for a minimum of side effects. In dogs, we would love a remission of months to a year or two. In people, doctors try for decades of remission, so treatment is more intense.
Palliative care comes with options as well. Radiation therapy is often helpful for dogs with bone cancer. Prednisolone can give patients with lymphoma some quality time.
What To Do Then
We all hope that our dog will be the one to beat the odds. The dog who, with a prognosis of 6 to 18 months, goes 19 months. It is important to realize that your dog may, unfortunately, be the one who goes six months.
A good plan is to assess your dog critically at least once a week. If your dog seems to feel miserable both physically and mentally, then maybe it is time to go to hospice care. If your dog is handling all treatments with just a few minor blips, then by all means continue on. Remember that mental health is as important as physical health. Your veterinarian can measure physical parameters, but you are the best one to know if your dog is truly happy, comfortable, having more good days than bad days, and still enjoying things he loves to do. Decisions made out of love are the “right” ones.
My own dog, Hokey, lived three years after a diagnosis of lymphoma. He handled chemotherapy like a champ and never missed a single meal. He died of other causes – an apparent lymphoma “cure.” My dog Wile E died 4 months after a diagnosis of hemangiosarcoma. Different cancers, different outcomes.
I hope for all the best outcomes for you and your dogs!
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.
Deb M. Eldredge, DVM, is a Cornell graduate and the first recipient of the Gentle Doctor Award. She is an award-winning veterinarian and writer.
Published January 4, 2021