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What to Know About Chemotherapy for Dogs

Hearing that your dog has cancer is nerve-wracking enough. Having chemo as one of the treatment options might make you feel uneasy, too. But is chemotherapy for dogs similar to chemotherapy for humans?

Jackie Brown  |  Jun 13th 2018


A cancer diagnosis for your dog is scary and upsetting. The good news is, many of the same cancer treatment options available for humans are also available for dogs. Depending on the type of cancer, treatments may give you more time with your dog, and in some cases even cure the cancer in question. Chemotherapy is one treatment option if your dog has cancer. But is chemotherapy for dogs similar to chemotherapy in humans? Let’s take a look.

Chemotherapy for dogs vs. chemotherapy for humans

An old, sick senior dog lying down.

Is chemotherapy for dogs similar to chemotherapy for humans? Photography ©dageldog | iStock / Getty Images Plus.

Chemotherapy treatment for humans is known for its unpleasant side effects, such as loss of appetite, nausea, fatigue, hair loss and more. Many dog parents worry that chemotherapy for dogs will put their beloved pets through too much — and and maybe it’s not fair to the dogs, who won’t understand why or what is happening.

As it turns out, chemotherapy for dogs is very different than chemotherapy for people. With people, the goal of chemotherapy (and all cancer treatments) is to extend survival time as much as possible. With pets, however, the goal is different.

“In veterinary oncology, we tend to focus on quality of life as being more important than quantity,” says Sarah Sheafor, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, a board-certified veterinary oncologist and medical director of VCA SouthPaws Veterinary Specialists & Emergency Center in Fairfax, Virginia. “As such, we do not want our patients to be sick or to have to be hospitalized for side effects of chemotherapy — or for symptoms of their cancers. We want them to be enjoying life at home, going about their normal activities — whether it’s going to the dog park, camping with their families or just snoozing on the bed.”

Chemotherapy for dogs — what are the side effects?

According to Dr. Sheafor, most dogs who receive chemotherapy experience no side effects. When side effects do occur, the oncologist can make adjustments to the chemotherapy protocol to stop the side effects. For this reason, it’s important to report any side effects like poor appetite to your veterinarian immediately so your dog doesn’t have to be uncomfortable. Oftentimes, the goal of chemotherapy for dogs is to give the canine a quality life rather than a cure.

When is chemotherapy for dogs recommended?

Chemotherapy isn’t a treatment for all canine cancers. Depending on the type of cancer your dog has, the treatment might be chemotherapy, radiation, surgery or a combination of all of these. “Chemotherapy is indicated when a cancer involves multiple parts of the body, or when there is a cancer that was only found in one part of the body but based on the type or grade of cancer we anticipate that metastatic (spread) lesions of the initial cancer will develop in the near future,” Dr. Sheafor explains. “Chemo may also be used to try to shrink a localized tumor, if surgery or radiation therapy is not possible.” Sometimes, chemotherapy is the sole treatment. In other cases, chemo might be used in conjunction with other treatments like surgery or radiation.

Concerned about chemotherapy for dogs?

Concerned about how chemotherapy will affect your dog? A veterinary oncologist can talk to you and answer all of your questions. “Seeking a consultation with a veterinary oncologist is the best way to determine if chemotherapy is needed, or whether some other form of therapy is advised,” Dr. Sheafor says. “The oncologist can help you understand exactly what to expect with — or without — therapy and give you a good idea of whether therapy will be administered at home or as an outpatient hospital experience. The schedule for each pet’s treatment (number and frequency of visits, labwork rechecks, etc.) is also discussed.” This conversation will also include a discussion of what, if any, side effects could occur and how these could be treated, managed or prevented.

Chemotherapy for dogs — how is it administered?

Dog parents often administer chemotherapy for their pets at home. Your veterinarian will provide instructions for how to properly handle the drugs. “In general, routine and standard hygiene is all that is needed,” Dr. Sheafor says. “If owners are administering pill forms of chemotherapy or growth inhibitors at home, gloves should be worn to handle these medications. After the pill is given, hands should be washed before eating or preparing food. If a pet has any accidents in the house, again, gloves are a great idea in terms of cleaning up the mess, but handwashing is important.” If someone in the household is pregnant or is trying to become pregnant, or babies or toddlers are living in the home, discuss it with your oncologist.

If your dog is ever diagnosed with cancer and your oncologist recommends chemotherapy, know that the treatment is not offered lightly. Chemotherapy for dogs is not indicated with certain forms of canine cancers, and some patients with other concurrent medical issues are not good candidates for chemo.

“Veterinary oncologists don’t advise chemotherapy if there is good evidence that a pet will not live longer or better with this therapy than without it,” Dr. Sheafor advises.

Thumbnail: Photography © Photoboyko | iStock / Getty Images. 

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