What to Do When Your Dog is Diagnosed with Cancer: Treatment, Prognosis, and Costs
By David F. Kramer
Few diagnoses in the veterinary world bring more pain to a dog owner than one simple word: cancer. The mind instantly goes to the perceived harshness of chemotherapy, surgery or radiation treatments, the likelihood of remission, and the possibility of losing the battle altogether. And while conditions such as kidney and heart disease can be more difficult to treat and have a poorer chance of survival than some types of cancer, this doesn’t stop the specter of cancer from casting a dark shadow over your pet and family.
An obvious first question to a diagnosis of cancer in our dogs is simply, why? The truth is that there is often no definitive reason. While some cancers are more common in certain breeds and in a few cases, causative links to specific genes or toxins have been identified, for the most part luck plays the biggest role in determining whether or not your dog may one day be afflicted.
RECOGNIZING THE SIGNS OF CANCER IN DOGS
There are many signs that could be indicative of cancer. Usually, you’ll see big changes at home. So things like decreased mobility, lethargy, changes in appetite, collapse, or inability to urinate. The specific symptoms that a dog develops depends on the type of cancer involved, where it is located, and how far it has progressed.
A diagnosis of cancer comes from further testing. Usually it’s during a workup that you’ll find it; either through an ultrasound, biopsy, or cytology.
TREATING CANCER IN DOGS
When it comes to treating dogs with cancer, chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery are typically recommended either alone or in combination. Veterinary medicine has made some recent strides in other treatments, such as immunotherapy or antibody therapy, but these are less prevalent than the first line treatments.
The course of your dog’s treatment will be determined by your veterinarian or veterinary oncologist, and will depend on the type of cancer, as well as other factors. Whenever it is feasible, surgery to physically remove as much of the cancer as possible is usually part of treatment. Surgery may be the only type of therapy that is recommended, or it will be performed before or after chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
While chemotherapy is a blanket term for using drugs to combat disease, such treatments for cancer come in several forms. Chemotherapy can be administered orally, intravenously, topically, subcutaneously, intramuscularly, intratumorally (directly into a tumor), or intracavitarily (into a body cavity).
Chemotherapy can be adjuvant: used after a tumor is removed in the hopes of killing the remaining or residual cancer cells; neoadjuvant: which is used prior to surgery to reduce the size of an existing tumor; or induction: which is used to hopefully bring about a remission for specific types of blood borne cancers.
The majority of dogs treated with chemotherapy don’t suffer much in the way of serious side effects. Most dogs will not lose their fur during chemotherapy, but some breeds (those with continuously growing hair coats like Poodles and Old English Sheepdogs) might experience some thinning of hair. Your dog might also experience temporary diarrhea or vomiting and have less of an appetite. Bone marrow suppression is another worry with chemotherapy treatments because it can lead to anemia and/or increased risk of infection. But these types of side effects are typically treatable.
Dr. Anderson will keep track of your dog’s progress through regular examinations, bloodwork, and discussions with you regarding what you observe at home. She may make changes in the dosage or choices of drug that are used for treatment based on how your dog responds to them.
It’s often used for tumors that can’t be surgically removed because they’re up against necessary structures such as the heart or brain. Chemotherapy is a systemic treatment—once injected, it goes all throughout the body battling microscopic disease when it starts spreading to other locations. Again, radiation is more localized.
Animals are given varying levels of sedation for radiation treatments, mainly to keep them still. There’s no direct pain from the radiation treatment itself although some discomfort, skin problems, or fatigue may be associated with its effects.
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST TO TREAT A DOG FOR CANCER?
Once a cancer diagnosis is determined, among the first considerations is cost. Even with research into this topic, you may find very little definitive information. Consulting with Dr. Anderson and her team of technicians will certainly help get you a ballpark figure, but the doctor may be hesitant to nail down a specific figure since it’s impossible to predict just how your dog will respond to treatment.
There are some cancers that are very affordable and inexpensive to treat, and others that really start to add up. Some cancers can be a couple hundred dollars a month, and others that start to add up into the thousands before you’re done. Everything is completely customized to that pet, what we know, and what the wishes of the family are.
While a diagnosis of cancer in your dog is by no means a certain death sentence, it’s sure to be a stressful time for both dogs and their families. Dr. Anderson will work with you to give you options for treatment and help walk you through any difficulties that come with it.