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Featuring Demian Dressler, DVM and Sue 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

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

      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:

      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.

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