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What You Need to Know If Your Dog Gets Diagnosed With Cancer

A cancer diagnosis brings with it many decisions to make. We take you from specialist through treatment and beyond with this helpful guide.

Audrey Pavia  |  Jan 13th 2016


Editor’s note: Have you seen the new Dogster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? This article appeared in our December/January issue. Subscribe to Dogster and get the bimonthly magazine delivered to your home.

A diagnosis of cancer in your dog can you leave you scared and confused. Once you’ve had time to digest the bad news, you’ll need to make some decisions for your dog. The following information can guide you.

The doctor: It’s likely a small-animal veterinarian diagnosed your dog’s cancer. But should you pursue treatment with a specialist?

“Oncologists have the most updated treatment options and are familiar with different cancer behavior and adverse reactions to treatments,” said Heidi P. Watkins, DVM, a small animal veterinarian with Airport Irvine Animal Hospital in Costa Mesa, California. “If seeing an oncologist is not an option, some cancers can be managed by primary veterinarians that feel comfortable doing so.”

Nigel on the beach. (Photo by Audrey Pavia)

Nigel on the beach. (Photo by Audrey Pavia)

Treatable cancers: The cancers most likely to respond to treatment include some that are caught early, along with those affecting the skin. “Many early cases of canine and feline lymphomas can be treated, and treatment can extend life with quality,” Watkins said. “Some skin tumors, such as mast cell, and some brain tumors can respond to simple medication protocols.”

Chemotherapy: After a cancer diagnosis, should you pursue chemotherapy for your dog?

“There are several key points to keep in mind when deciding to move forward with chemotherapy,” Watkins said. “Severely comprised animals may respond less favorably to chemo or experience a high rate of adverse reactions. Also, some types of cancer can have a history of poor response to chemo, and perhaps pursuing treatment is not the best option.”

In some cases, the location of a tumor, such as squamous cell carcinoma on the face near the eye, may make treatments like radiation more risky for damaging nearby tissue, according to Watkins. And finally, money is another consideration. Chemotherapy can be costly.

Cost: If your dog doesn’t have medical insurance, or his insurance doesn’t cover cancer, cost can be a big factor in your decisions.

“Things that influence cost range from what type of cancer and treatment protocol to where the pet is being treated — by a regular veterinarian or a specialist,” Watkins said. “The total cost could be as low as $1,000 spent over the course of a few months, to many thousands of dollars for radiation treatments, recheck lab work, and advanced imaging.”

Audrey and Nigel take a run on the sand at Carmel Beach. (Photo by Russ Case)

Audrey and Nigel take a run on the sand at Carmel Beach. (Photo by Russ Case)

Some dog owners have started online fundraising campaigns to pay for their dog’s treatment. If you are active online and have a lot of pet-loving friends, fundraising can be a good idea.

Diet: Consider changing your dog’s diet if he has been diagnosed with cancer. According to Watkins, it’s best to feed a higher fat and protein, low-carb diet. “Cancer cells thrive on sugars and carbs,” she said. “However, many cancer patients have decreased appetite issues, and so just getting any food into them can be a challenge.”

Clinical trials: Getting your dog into a clinic trial can help him get cutting edge treatment at a reduced cost. “Some specialty veterinary hospitals do occasionally sponsor clinical trials for developing cancer treatments,” Watkins said. “Contacting either your regular veterinarian or, even better, a veterinary oncology hospital to find out if there is a trial for your animal’s condition could be helpful in funding a patient’s treatment.”

Hospice: When treating the cancer is no longer an option, making your pet as comfortable as possible is your next step.

“Quality of life for the pet should always be the primary objective,” Watkins said. “If chemotherapy is not chosen or is not possible, or the pet is no longer responding favorably to treatment, then hospice can be considered as a prelude to humane euthanasia.”

Honoring your dog: You can make a donation in your dog’s name to a canine cancer research organization like the National Canine Cancer Foundation, Puppy Up Foundation, Morris Animal Foundation, Animal Cancer Foundation, or Canine Cancer Awareness, or you can start a fundraising page for one of these organizations in your dog’s name.

If your dog has passed, you may also want to consider something more personal, like a tattoo of your pet, a commissioned portrait of your dog, or even a special urn for his ashes. Of course, the ultimate way to honor him is to open your heart to another dog, like a rescue. Saving the life of a shelter dog is the greatest way you can pay tribute to your dog’s memory.

Nigel getting ready for the holidays. (Photo by Audrey Pavia)

Nigel getting ready for the holidays. (Photo by Audrey Pavia)

When it’s time

“Cancer is not a death sentence,” according to Gerald Post, DVM, a board certified specialist in oncology and owner of the Veterinary Cancer Center in Norwalk, Connecticut. “Cancer is much more treatable now than ever before as we have far more options.”

But for those of us with a dog whose cancer is not curable, a time will come when we have to make the decision to give up the fight.

“When to give up is often the most difficult question a veterinarian has to answer,” Dr. Post said. “Anyone who seeks oncologic care for their pets loves and knows their pet. Your pet ‘speaks’ to you in hundreds of nonverbal ways every day. In many cases, your pet will ‘tell’ — whether it’s a different look, a change in behavior, or the way in which your dog interacts with you.”

Dr. Post counsels his clients to make a list of the 10 to 20 most important activities in their dog’s life, and when a significant number of them can no longer be done, then it may be time.

“It’s a very personal and very final decision,” he said. “In my 25 years of practice, I have found that most pet parents know and make the right decision at the right time.”

Audrey Pavia shares her personal experience with the disease in Losing My Corgi to Cancer Was the Hardest Thing I’ve Gone Through.

Read more by Audrey Pavia:

About the author: An award-winning professional writer and editor, Audrey Pavia is a former managing editor of DOG FANCY magazine and former senior editor of the AKC Gazette. She is the author of The Labrador Retriever Handbook (Barrons) and has also written extensively on horses as well as other pets. She shares her home in Norco, California, with a rescue dog named Candy.