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Featuring Demian Dressler, DVM and Susan Ettinger, DVM, Dip. ACVIM (Oncology), authors of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide

You Really Treat Dogs and Cats Who Have Cancer?

Updated: October 10th, 2018

Dr. Susan Ettinger, DVM, ACVIM (Oncology), is co-author of the brand-new Second Edition of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide.

You REALLY treat dogs and cats who have cancer??

That’s usually the first question I hear when people find out I am a veterinary oncologist. You may get a similar response from your family and friends when you share that you are thinking about or are treating your pet with cancer – you are really going to treat your dog with cancer?

Why would anyone do this for a living? I first became interested in cancer cells in vet school. I was fascinated by the cell biology and the steps that turn a normal cell in a body to evolve into an uncontrollably dividing malignant cell. But that is not why I became an oncologist.

People think it is depressing to be an oncologist. Actually it is the opposite. Don’t get me wrong. It can be frustrating, saddening and heartbreaking to lose a patient after sharing months or years together with the pet and Guardians. But the majority of the time, it is about hope and cautious optimism. You can – and should – get educated about the cancer, how it progresses, what the statistical chances are for response to treatment, and what the survival times are, but then decide on your treatment path and keep the hope alive.

Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years as an oncologist:

ONE: Cancer is a big name for many different cancers. Each cancer is a different disease from every other cancer. So while it may be helpful to talk to other people that treated their pets for cancer, one dog’s lymphoma is very different than hemangiosarcoma, oral melanoma, or osteosarcoma. If you know someone’s dog that received Adriamycin (aka doxorubicin) or Palladia and did not tolerate, it does not mean your pet will not. That dog may have had cancer in advanced stages or had other pre-existing conditions that complicated the treatment. Each dog is an individual.

TWO: Dogs handle chemotherapy so much better than people. I have had human friends and family members receive chemotherapy treatment. They can get pretty sick. They can spend time hospitalized from side effects.  I am grateful that is not how dogs respond. The large majority of pets lead very normal lives with minimal side effects from treatment. Hospitalization from chemotherapy-induced side effects is uncommon (<5%).  In contrast, I cannot tell you how many times Guardians report that their dog has more energy that it did 6 months or a year ago. In most cases, the cancer was not around then, but I think it is testament to how well most pets feel during and after treatment. I always tell Guardians, if you are thinking of trying chemotherapy, give a dose or two and see how they do. Most Guardians are so pleased that they continue with treatment.

THREE: Your pet does not “know” they have cancer. They feel pain and do not enjoy feeling unwell. But they do not have to absorb all the information about the cancer, the survival statistics, and stress over whether the cancer or the treatment will make them feel sick. They do not deal with the psychological aspect that we do – that is your burden as their Guardian, but luckily they do not have that worry.  They live in the moment, and I think in this situation, a little ignorance is bliss.

(And remember stressing over how they will respond and how long we can control the cancer does not change the outcome. Let me or your oncologist worry about the treatment, the doses, and the cancer. Your part is to give me feedback about how the last treatment went at home and give the medications as directed. And your biggest job is to enjoy each day, for each day is a gift with our four-legged companions.)

FOUR: When your veterinarian or oncologist tells you statistics, remember there are no guarantees. There are pets that happily make liars out of me because they live longer than the statistics we quote. On the flip side there are pets that do not live as long as we predict, even if you follow all our recommendations.

FIVE: We all want a cure for cancer, but it is important to think of many cancers as chronic conditions that may require therapy. While a generalization, I recommend treatment when your pet is likely to live longer with treatment than without. And thankfully most pets feel good during the treatments.

It is actually a very exciting time to be an oncologist. Cancer treatment is evolving. RadioSurgery is a new alternative radiation treatment that treats some cancers like brain and nasal tumors in 1 to 3 treatments, with fewer side effects, less trips to the hospital and less anesthesias. (We offer CyberKnife RadioSurgery at my practice, the Animal Specialty Center, in Yonkers NY.)

Metronomic chemotherapy is a newer approach that is being used more commonly and involves low dose oral chemotherapy. Instead of direct cancer cell killing, the goal is to target the blood vessels that allow tumors to grow and spread. I commonly use this approach with Palladia in dogs that come in with metastasis (spread). In my residency, I was taught these patients may live 1, 2 or 3 months, but with this approach, dogs are living longer –  10, 12, 16 plus months with their cancer. Cancer is not cured, but dogs live well despite the cancer and while on treatment.

So yes, I really DO treat dogs and cats with cancer. You should consider the treatment for your pet even if your support circle does not agree. There is reason to be hopeful and cautiously optimistic. Many dogs with cancer not only live longer but live well.

Dr. Sue

Discover the Full Spectrum Approach to Dog Cancer

Leave a Comment





  1. Elizabeth Weinberger on February 18, 2019 at 6:18 pm

    My 8 year-old Doxie-Jack Russell mix has squamous cell tonsillar cancer, with metastasis to the lungs. I have been told that her life expectancy is about 3 months. I was advised that it might be a good idea for her to have palliative radiation treatment to the area where the tumor was found. The vet removed 5he tumor when he found it, hoping to make her more comfortable. She is currently doing very well— eating well, enjoying her life. I haven’t yet spoken to the radiologist, as she just had the CAT scan confirming the spread to the lungs. What do you think about palliative radiation therapy, and when should it be done if they recommend it. My preference is to wait until I see signs of tumor regrowth, as I hate subjecting her to anything while she is feeling so good. She is traumatized already by what has been done to her. She is afraid to let me put her leash on. She’s a very smart dog, and doesn’t forget that she had a bad time when I took her places recently. My heart is just broken. She is a gem of a dog. Everyone adores her.

    • Dog Cancer Vet Team on February 19, 2019 at 9:00 am

      Hello Elizabeth,

      Thanks for writing. As we’re not veterinarians here, we can’t offer you medical advice. However, we can provide you with information based off Dr. Dressler’s writings 🙂

      In the Dog Cancer Survival Guide, Dr. D highly recommends that you become your dog’s Primary Healthcare Advocate. You know yourself, and your girl the best, and there are a number of factors that you have to take into consideration (finances, your dog’s personality, your personality, treatment options, age, etc) before making a decision, as each dog and their health situation is different– there is no “one right fit”. This is where Treatment Plan Analysis can be really beneficial. Here’s an article on how to end treatment plan analysis paralysis https://www.dogcancerblog.com/blog/make-decisions-dog-cancer-treatments/

      You also have to factor in your guardian type– do you want your girl to be as comfortable as possible? Are you okay with handling the side effects of particular treatments? How important is quality of life? Do you think she would be the same after surgery? It’s a lot of questions, but you have to ask yourself these, and many more, when making a decision. Here’s a link to an article on guardian types that you may find helpful: https://www.dogcancerblog.com/blog/why-your-personality-is-so-important-to-your-dog-with-cancer/

      As Dr. D writes in the Dog Cancer Survival Guide, there are a number of treatment options (besides surgery, chemo and radiation) in the Full Spectrum Cancer Care that you could consider, under your vet’s supervision– Nutraceuticals, Diet, Brain Chemistry Modification, and Immune System Boosters and Anti-Metastics.

      If you do decide that radiation is an option, then you may find this article to be helpful:

      We can’t tell you what the right choice is because we’re not vets, each dog and their situation is different, and we don’t know your girl. But you do, and once you figure out what is most important to you both, you can then make a more informed decision

  2. Susan Kazara Harper on October 23, 2014 at 8:03 pm

    Marilyn, Bless your heart, going through this with your beloved pup. We really understand; we’ve been there. Please do understand yourself that neither Dr Dressler nor Dr Ettinger can review diagnostics or make any statements about an individual dog over the internet. It wouldn’t be accurate or ethical, and wouldn’t be the best thing for your dog. You need to either go back to your vet to get more information, ask to be referred to a specialist (preferably a vet oncologist) and/or find another vet to work with. We give all the information possible through the Dog Cancer Survival Guide, the blog and other forums to help you, as your girl’s best champion, make decisions you’ll be content with. We can help untangle some of the confusion, and guide you in your steps to support her. For the diagnosis and treatment protocol, you really need a hands-on vet you can work with. Your girl is not a number, and she has no expiration date carved in stone. There is a lot you can do to help her in the fight, so take a deep breath, keep reading and get that vet partnership going. All the best!

  3. Marilyn Mack on October 10, 2014 at 3:15 pm

    Is your email available anywhere would like to send you 3 xrays of my dog and her diagnoses to get your opinion and advice. Fury is a 12 year old STAFFIE that we just found a good size tumor in her right lung. . . Wanting to know how to treat my belove Furiest and loyal staffie. . .

  4. Lynn Jenkin on November 15, 2013 at 3:46 am

    Hi Sue, I live in Australia and my 9 year old chihuahua has been diagnosed with cancer of the liver. She has a very distended abdomen. She has lost a bit of weight in other parts of her body. The Vet said she had weeks or months to live. Couldn’t give a time frame. She is eating, running around, wagging her tail and behaving like nothing is wrong. Is there any treatment you could advise? Could you tell me what symptoms she is ikely to get when it comes closer to her time? Could it be a benign tumour? I first noticed her abdomen getting a bit enlarged approx 8 months ago. I would appreciate any advice you can give me. Sincerely, Lynn from Australia.

  5. james spangler on October 29, 2012 at 7:19 pm

    Hi Dr. Ettinger,
    I have an English bulldog recently diagnosed with a chondrosarcoma tumor in her left nasal passage and sinus cavity. Have you had any success treating nasal chondrosarcoma with cyberknife radio surgery? I want the best for my dog and am struggling with the decision to do the cyberknife or not, because I am wondering how sensitive chondrosarcomas specifically are to radio surgery. Thanks so much- Best, James

    • Dr. Susan Ettinger on November 3, 2012 at 10:48 am

      Hi James,
      Sorry for the delay. We have been hit quite hard with Hurricaine Sandy and I am displaced from home and without power.
      Chondrosarcomas are radiation sensitive and have the best survival times of the nasal tumors treated with radiation (about 24 months), so CyberKnife would be a great option since the treatment is conforming – so less treatments (3) and less side effects. Please contact the Oncolgy Service at Animal Specialty Center for more info and scheduling, if you have not already.
      All my best, Dr Sue

  6. Audrey on February 6, 2012 at 2:51 pm

    Dr. Ettinger,

    Our golden that is 10 years old was recently diagnosed with basosquamous carcinoma. It is already in his lymph nodes and our vet at this point doesn’t suggest any treatments. What are your thoughts on this? It has not spread to his lungs at this point.
    We are willing to try anything, we are heartbroken.
    Any suggestions are welcome.

    Thank you,
    Audrey

  7. Pat on January 2, 2012 at 12:07 pm

    My 11 year old spayed Sheltie “Vicky” was diagnosed by a neurologist with a brain tumor (meningiomas – frontal lobe) on 12-12-11 after her MRI in Richmond, VA. I was told that a specialist in Yonkers, NY has the advanced radiation equipment that would only require 1 to 3 days of radiation (vrs. 17 days in the Washington DC area). I called the Yonkers, NY specialist, however, they would not give me any information over the phone (regarding a price range & whether the treatments were on consecutive days) and wanted to set up an in person consultation in Yonkers. SInce I live in southeastern Virginia, I did not set up a consultation.

    My Vicky is on predisone. The neurologist has suggested hydoxyurea.

    In your Chapter regarding Brain Cancer (in the Dog Cancer Survival Guide) you talked about endoscopy surgery and stated that the dogs in the study with frontal meningioma had a “medium survival time of 5.8 years”. Do you know where endoscopy surgery is performed? and was the 5.8 years a misprint??

    I understand a Sheltie’s life expectancy is 13 years.

    Should I get an oncologist or Vicky’s regular vet to contact the specialist in Yonkers, NY to find out if the treatments are on consecutive days? (I lost Vicki’s brother to a nerve sheath tumor in August; I do not want to lose Vicky too.)

    • Dr. Susan Ettinger on January 3, 2012 at 6:31 pm

      Pat,

      I am sorry about Vicky and also the problems you had when calling for more information about CyberKnife Radiation. The specialty hospital in Yonkers is where I work, the Animal Specialty Center. While we don’t typically quote prices beyond the initial consultation over the phone (diagnostics and treatment plans can be very individual), owners inquiring about CyberKnife is an exception.

      Like you, many clients are traveling from far away, so typically a nurse/vet tech can call you back and provide some basic info. Obviously we can not go over specifics until the pet is examined, but you should have received more info to help in your decision to travel to NY for an appointment. So let’s get you that info! =)

      Dogs and cats with brain cancer come in through the Neurology Department. I see the cases with tumors “outside the brain” (nasal, bone, prostate) – those come in thru me (Medical Oncology). So I need to get you in touch with an assistant to our neurologist, Dr Joseph. Tomorrow, call and leave a message for Dr Joseph’s department and that you are looking for more info about CyberKnife. Depending on the tumor and location, treatment is either 1 or 3 treatments, and the 3 treatments are done on consecutive days. But a CT needs to be done at our facility prior for the radiation planning. That can all be discussed more on the phone so you understand the scheduling.

      Again, I am sorry about Vicky, but we can get you more info to determine if CyberKnife is right for her. Please call Animal Specialty Center at 914-457-4000 and leave you info so you can be contacted.

      Warm regards,
      Dr. Ettinger

  8. Jenny on November 23, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    Dr. Ettinger,
    I just wanted to say thanks for your well-written article. Our 11 yr old Aussie, Rex, was diagnosed with Lymphoma in July. We were devastated. Beyond heartbroken. We’d just lost our other dog to bladder cancer in February. Rex has been taking chemo since the first week in July. Articles like this one, which offer hope and positivity, are hard to find and incredibly important for the guardian’s emotional well-being. If all goes well, Rex has only two treatments left, and finishes December 20th. I’m very cautious when saying “he’s doing well” because I don’t want to jinx us, but today, he’s good, and the present day is what matters most when dealing with this devastating disease.

  9. Maciej on October 21, 2011 at 10:58 am

    Dear Dr. Ettinger,

    The vet who treated my dog while abroad needs some help. He takes care of the dog who has a metastatic melanoma. He would like to try Oncept, but it is not available in Europe. Could you please let us know how to obtain it? It would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

    • Dr. Susan Ettinger on November 1, 2011 at 5:11 pm

      Maciej,
      I am not sure how to get the melanoma vaccine in Europe. Perhaps your veterinarian can contact Merial directly?
      Good luck, Dr Sue

  10. Mary on October 20, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    Yes it is true that dogs can live long and well after a cancer diagnosis! My golden retriever Logan was successfully treated for a basosquamous cell carcinoma in his inner ear. Logan had surgery to remove his ear canal and a full month’s course of radiation. We ultimately chose an aggressive course of treatment but only after carefully considering the risks and quality of life at each step along the way. Logan is still happy four years after diagnosis. Btw I do not know this oncologist. We were treated in Boston.

    • Dr. Susan Ettinger on November 1, 2011 at 5:03 pm

      Mary,
      Glad to hear Logan is doing well 4 years later!
      Dr Sue

  11. Lisa on October 20, 2011 at 9:15 am

    Dr.Ettinger-
    I have a toy rat terrier that had never been spayed, then she had a mammary tumor rupture & though she is 12 years old I opted to have her spayed. This has been approx 3 months ago & the veterinarian told me that she does have lung cancer- I did not see a blood test report, but viewed the x-rays & the bet pointed out 4 tumors on her lungs.
    I live in the mountains, so going to town is hard for me- but since she acts like she feels better then ever I would have her go through a treatment such as chemo- but wondered what you thought about the Essiac Tea- ( not sure I spelled that correctly) I just wondered if it would hurt for me to try this as we do have a friend that manages a health food store & her husband had lung cancer & since she had him on this, the newest report is no cancer found!
    Just wondered if you would have time to give me your insight on this, though I would put her through chemo if that is a better option, but the vet here did not tell me if they do that-
    Want to give Miss Molly the best life possible!
    Thank you for your time-I commend you for being there to help Gods Amazing creatures!
    Lisa

    • Dr. Susan Ettinger on November 1, 2011 at 5:06 pm

      Lisa,
      I am so sorry to hear about your dog. I do not have any personal experience with this supplement. If the cancer has spread to the lungs, I recommend consulting with an oncologist.
      Check out http://www.ACVIM.org and click on the” find a specialist” tab – you can search for an oncologist by state
      Good luck!
      Dr Sue

  12. For Jean on October 20, 2011 at 8:34 am

    Jean,

    You might want to contact Texas A&M Vet school. They might be able to offer you treatment options.

    Best wishes

    Francis

  13. Jesse Brown on October 20, 2011 at 5:45 am

    A particularly virulent cancer is Histiocytic Sarcoma or Malignant Histiocytosis. We lost our 8 year old Golden, Clancy, to this nasty disease on Sept 4 of this year. We fought all summer with chemo (CCNU and Paladia), surgery to remove spinal tumors (they came back and re-paralyzed him) and radiation (which worked but couldn’t contain the spread.

    This first manifested as subcutaneous skin lesions and then his spleen (all removed) then it attacked his spine. At the end he was paralyzed in his rear legs and tail and couldn’t move or control his elimination, although put him in the pool and he acted like nothing was wrong, happily swimming and retrieving his frisbee. I know he was in pain as the Neurontin and Tramadol couldn’t suppress the pain. He would wake panting and whimpering. We made the hardest decision of our lives to end treatment at Carolina Vet Specialists in Mathews, NC. and let our boy go free.

    Good luck in your research.

    Jesse in Virginia.

    • Dr. Susan Ettinger on November 1, 2011 at 5:09 pm

      Jesse, I am so sorry about Clancy and your loss. Histiocytic sarcoma can be very aggressive.
      May good memories soften your sadness, Dr Sue

  14. Jean on October 9, 2011 at 5:50 pm

    Dr. Ettinger,
    I have a 12 year old Australian Shepherd who was recently diagnosed with nasal adenocarcinoma.
    Do you know any place in Texas that offers CyberKnife RadioSurgery?
    Jean

    • Dr. Susan Ettinger on November 1, 2011 at 4:56 pm

      Jean,
      Sorry about your dog. I am unaware of CyberKnife RadioSurgery in Texas. Our unit is in NY, and Colorado State University also offers radiosurgery.
      Good luck!
      Dr. Sue