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

Things You Need To Know About Radiation for Dog Cancer

Updated: November 27th, 2018

This is a continuation of the previous blog topic, radiation therapy in dog cancer.

We looked at some benefits of radiation previously, both in terms of life quality and lifespan.

This time, I would like to look at some of the downsides.  I am not interested in painting a darker picture than is necessary.  This is a treatment where a rationale approach in needed, where good and bad are evaluated.  As an owner and guardian of your dog, you should be advised of things so you can make educated decisions.

Radiation therapy is no joke. Each treatment requires general anesthesia, and protocols for designed for cancer remissions involve multiple treatments each week, sometimes even daily. Multiple rounds of general anesthesia should be taken into account when making a decision about radiation, especially in senior dogs. Most vets would agree that an aged canine and 30 rounds of general anesthesia may not be a good mix.

Palliative treatment, radiation designed for the comfort (pain control) of the dog, is less frequent, perhaps weekly for a month or so. This seems a bit “easier on the system” overall.

The radiation in the beam, if it contacts other living tissue, will damage it as well. Sometimes there is radiation scatter, which is where the beam directed at the tumor actually ends up hitting a bit of normal (non cancerous) body tissue.

There can be some side effects that may be seen immediately following treatment, when the beam contacts normal body parts.

The skin can get a little inflamed, similar to a sunburn. There may be nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and loss of appetite. If radiation contacts the mouth, irritation and sores may occur within mucus membranes lining the mouth. This can be painful and require care. If the beam or scatter contacts the gland that makes tears to lubricate the eye, injury can occur to the glands.  This  requires lifetime lubricating ointment to be put in the eyes. Similarly, the lining of the lungs can become damaged if they are exposed to radiation.

All of these effects can occur within days or weeks of radiation treatment and examples of acute toxicity.

Get a copy of the Dog Cancer Survival Guide to learn more about Dog Cancer and Radiation

Radiation consequences can occur years later…delayed radiation toxicity. This can include injury to kidneys, nerves or spinal cord, and ligament damage.

A bizarre delayed toxicity form is the development of new cancers, as a consequence of the radiation. This is documented with cases of osteosarcoma (bone cancer), bladder tumors, and connective tissue tumors.

Take home message? Radiation is not a minor therapy. Consider it carefully. Be advised if you have a young dog that you are considering radiation for, you may see delayed toxicity, years later but during the dog’s lifespan, even in the form of new cancers.

Discover the Full Spectrum Approach to Dog Cancer

Leave a Comment

  1. Shannon George on November 2, 2018 at 3:41 am

    My 6 year old lab was diagnosed with partoid salivary gland carcinoma. We did surgery to remove growth and the test show no cells in surronding tissues. We were suggested radiation treatment or what and see. Anyone have any information on this type of cancer or advice?

  2. Robert Fullick on November 23, 2017 at 9:28 pm

    Hi I know this post is old but…our Labrador has an MCT in his front right paw…had surgery to remove it and lymph node, got clear margins around it but not depth so had radiotherapy- absolutely horrendous, and nearly lost him twice. Vets put a fentanyl patch on half way through and reacted really bad – couldn’t breathe and throwing up so rushed into ICU for 10 days (at £300 per day). Paw sloughed off, broke down completely – in the end looked like was dipped in glue, was gunky and for 4 months the vet didn’t want to feel like they had been beaten – now I know was complete ego trip – and my boy was in agony until we had to amputate 3 months ago. Total £18,000 and even now I’m struggling to pay as had to use credit cards and the last £700 I’m being hounded for. If I’d known now, I would’ve amputated at the first appointment!

  3. Laurie Jeffers on December 23, 2016 at 7:10 am

    My 6 year old cattle dog was diagnosed with a soft tissue sarcoma tumor in the upper inside elbow area. I had 2 treatment options: 1. amputate the leg and most likely the cancer would be cut out, or 2. administer 3 days of stereotactic radiosurgery and no amputation. We went with option one because of estimated costs. I feel I was slightly mislead during the consultation which in my mind lead me to choose amputation. The surgery DIDN’T obtain clean margins which now means my girl has lost her leg and now requires 19 days of radiation treatment at and additional cost that will surpass the more expensive choice of treatment option 2! Hindsight, I should have gone with the more expensive treatment (SRS) and could have saved money and more importantly, my dogs leg. I feel my hometown vets were more compassionate to my dog’s needs but they didn’t have all the necessary equipment so we had to travel 180 miles to an oncology clinic in a bigger city. In my opinion, my dog was looked more as “a number” than a “living patient”.
    Our dog is a therapy dog and we are now choosing to do a crowdfunding campaign to see if we can afford the radiation treatments. Remember, you are your dog’s advocate. Please do your research, get written estimates and ask lots of questions during any vet consultations.

  4. Susan Kazara Harper on October 23, 2014 at 7:13 pm

    Hi Hayley,
    Bless you and your dog to go through all this. I know it’s hard; remember that chemo and radiation for dogs is nothing like the doses used for humans. That doesn’t make it any better when you know he’s not feeling well. You don’t say what his symptoms are, so it’s difficult to help you along. Have you been back to the vet to ask? If your dog is not eating, it’s possible to use gentle appetite stimulants to help get that food in, and I hope you’re using the Dog Cancer Diet. It’s important to ask your vet, or vet oncologist what side effects to expect, how to help him through, and when to know if it’s a stronger reaction than expected. You must remember as well that he’s going to reflect your own emotions. For him, you must stay gently positive, offer play when you can, perhaps even offer him that good, natural food by hand; it’s so much more important when we hand-feed when they’re not feeling well. Do check in with your vet to help any symtoms, and keep reminding your boy that you’re in this together and doing everything you can through your love. He looks to you for the mood of the day, and the more positive you can be, the better he will respond to everything. Good luck!

  5. Hayley on October 15, 2014 at 6:13 pm

    Hi there, I have a 3 year old Bloodhound going through chemo and radiation everyday. He’s in his 4th week and its hitting him pretty hard. Do you know of any tips that are helpful and more “natural” to make him feel better after his treatments? Maybe like heating pads, a type of food or anything. Just hate seeing him feel like this and love him so much i just want to find anything that could help in the least bit through his post daily treatments. I know whats he’s going through is unbearable and I can’t even imagine what he feels like since he’s just a puppy- but I’m just desperate.

  6. Troy Daniels on August 13, 2014 at 12:41 pm

    I have a 12 year old Standard Poodle. She has had two surgeries in the last five weeks. Otherwise she is in very good health. The vet said that she is a “special animal.” While I agree, I’m trying to decide what is best for her. She lost all of her front upper teeth and canines, she has had persistent infection in her mouth and gums since this started. She was on multiple antibiotic regimens. She had her teeth cleaned by the vet every year for the last several years, everything checked out as normal less than a year ago. The cancer seems to be fairly aggressive. She has been diagnosed with Squamous Cell Carcinoma. Our vet does not do radiation, but has recommended that we consider it with a referral. Our vet has indicated that we are looking at a year at most. Given that we have a year, I am concerned about quality of life. How would you proceed?

  7. Lisa on October 19, 2013 at 5:52 pm

    My Name Is Lisa My ,4 Year Old Rottie Bru Has A Growth Inside His Spinal Cord That Can’t Be Biopsied And Can’t Be Removed I Have Done Some Chemo Treatments Inflammatory Treatments And All Anti Fungal Treatment And He Isn’t Any Better My Next And Only Option Left Is Radiation What’s Your Opinion?

  8. Victoria Tyman on April 30, 2013 at 12:17 pm

    What are the odds of obtaining clean margins when removing a mast cell tumor from a dog’s front leg (inside of “elbow” area) ?

  9. Christy Cimino on April 29, 2013 at 4:16 pm

    Hi, thank you both for your comments and concern . We are seeing one of the best oncologist ( Dr Burke ) and Neurologists ( Dr Lipstiz ) that Southern California has to offer. Cooper is being treated at the Veterinary Specialty Hospital / UC Davis in San Diego. Dr Burke has recommended ” palliative radiotherapy ” for Cooper’s Glioma tumor. He started today ( had the CT scan last Thursday ) …nothing has spread and the tumor is” slow growing ” . Dr Burke will do 2 treatments a week ( Mon and Thurs ) for 3 weeks. Cooper is strong and young and should respond well and it will help with the symptoms down the road and give him some good quality time with us and his Boxer pup, Bostie sister and cat. I will keep you updated. Thank you so much for your kind words and compassion. Christy

  10. Cheryl on April 29, 2013 at 6:49 am

    Hello Dr-

    I have an Aussie shepard lab mix, 7 years old, who was diagnosed with Nasa -Carsinoma 1 week ago. After CT and biopsy were completed this was their diagnosis. They have given me 2 options of radiation therapy: 1)XRT – 18 treatments 3x a week or 2) SRT- 3 consecutive treatments and he’s done. Financially both are very expensive treatments and if I decide to do one of the treatments it would be SRT. I do not know anything about these treatments, negative or positive,and their outcomes, other than what the oncologist has mentioned. I’m am at a lose as to what to do. Morally I want to help “Max” but Im afraid since radiation therapy is fairly new, that it is not the right option. Finacially I don’t have the means even with Carecredit on hand it will only cover 1/4 of the costs. Please help me understand the pros and cons of radiation therapy to a dog who is not showing any signs of being sick or in pain.
    Thank you

  11. Judith on April 23, 2013 at 6:20 am

    My 13 year old Siberian husky was just diagnosed with amelanotic melanoma which is in her mouth (upper jaw, towards the front). The x-rays show no spread anywhere and the bone is not involved at this point. The oncologist has recommended a course of radiation once a week for 6 weeks and then the vaccine for this cancer (which I also read about in Dr. Dressler’s book). Misty is very healthy other than this, and I am planning to go ahead with the treatment. This blog post was very helpful. I am hoping there will be no serious side effects. I don’t think I would do the daily treatments, but once a week seems less onerous for her. Hope I’m making the right decision. We do the best we can for our precious friends!

    • Dr. Demian Dressler on April 24, 2013 at 12:27 pm

      Dear Judith
      ok, best of luck and do stay in touch
      I hope it goes well!
      Best, Dr D

  12. Christy Cimino on April 17, 2013 at 6:10 pm

    My healthy 5 yr old Boston Terrier was just diagnosed with a Glioma Brain Tumor / Rt Cerebral , after 2 short seizures. We are devastated , as Cooper is from 5 generations of Champions and no brain cancer in any lines. He’s on phenobarbital and a 3 week tapering dose of prednisone . The neurologists estimates 3-6 mths with just palliative care or 12 mths with 15 treatments of Radiation …I won’t put him thru brain surgery and then radiation …will radiation really give him a good quality of life for those 8 mths ?

  13. Angie on February 12, 2013 at 2:16 pm

    My 6.5 year old Mastiff has a periarticular histiocytic sarcoma in his cheek. The tumor is embedded in the muscle of the cheek and they feel surgery would be too evasive. We decided to do the 5 days of radiation then CCNU chemo for 4 weeks after that.
    My question to you about the radiation is would it make a difference if he had it Wed, Thurs, Fri then 2 days off to start again Mon and Tues the following week?
    I’m curious if it’s more beneficial to have radiation 5 consecutive days?

    • Dr. Susan Ettinger on February 24, 2013 at 9:07 am

      Much of the protocol depends on the goal of radiation, a definitive course vs palliative, and the amount of radiation being given (at each treatment and the total dose). Ask your radiation oncologist.
      Good luck to your Mastiff!
      All my best, Dr Sue

  14. Elizabeth Stovall on January 25, 2013 at 2:45 pm

    We have a 5 yr old black lab, who was just diagnosed today with nerve sheath cancer. The tumor is in right shoulder area, which had completly atrophied the right leg. Our Dr. thinks amputating probably wouldn’t help because of the location of the tumor and that it may have already spread to spinal chord. He has given us 3 doses of an oral chemo to be given once a week.(Haven’t started yet) From what I’ve read, radiation treatment for nerve sheath cancer isn’t all that beneficial. I’m wondering what your opinion of this type of cancer and radiation treatment. She’s so young:(

    • Dr. Demian Dressler on January 29, 2013 at 6:44 pm

      Dear Elizabeth,
      maybe the cyberknife or gamma knife would be options? They might yield higher success probability or longer remissions and are more targeted (less scatter to surrounding areas)
      Dr D

    • Dr. Susan Ettinger on February 8, 2013 at 5:08 pm

      Advanced imaging like MRI or CT will help determine how extensive the tumor is. Ideally Nerve sheath tumors are treated with surgery, and post-op radiation if margins are not wide. For those involving the spinal cord, radiation can be an options. Stereotactic radiosurgery like CyberKnife may be a good option too. The advanced imaging will really be helpful in making good treatment recommendations.
      All my best, Dr Sue

  15. tracey mack on January 22, 2013 at 5:57 pm

    My 6-year-old female belgian tervuren was diagnosed with an infiltrating fibrolipoma on her snout when she was just shy of 3 years old. multiple needle aspirates and a couple of biopsies confirmed the diagnosis. it grew very rapidly, and she was referred to a surgeon, who attempted to remove it. within 72 hours it was already regrowing, it was that aggressive. she was then referred to an oncologist, who recommended a 4-week course of radiation, 5 days/week, which we agreed to.

    3 years later, the tumor itself has not reappeared, but she has had significant scar tissue growth on her snout, resembling a large knob. more troubling however, is the significant impact it has had on her sinus passages, predominantly on the affected side. she has tremendous sinus discharge, and i regularly have to remove the loose discharge and/or dried mucous from her nose. i give her nose drops daily (a mild saline solution used for infants/small children) and occasionally apply neosporin inside her nose when she gets a bloody nose.

    my vet has tried numerous antibiotics designed for either fungal or bacterial infections, to no success. She has lately developed discharge from her eyes as well, again, predominantly on the affected side.

    i am reaching out to you in the hopes that you may be able to point us in a fresh direction, as her original diagnosis has almost never been heard of, and no one knows how to treat the radiation aftermath. I look forward to your reply; thank you so very much!

    tracey m.
    los angeles, california

    • Dr. Demian Dressler on January 29, 2013 at 6:55 pm

      Dear Tracy,
      that is a tough one. Do we know that the problem is excessive scar tissue or damage to the lining of the nose from the radiation?
      Options would be both bacterial and fungal cultures to grow any microbes in the sinuses for identification and then information on the right kind of medication for them…if present. Antifibrotic therapy is not frequently used in dogs..maybe colchicine??
      Hope that helps
      Dr D

  16. Stephanie Hohenadel on October 2, 2012 at 6:44 am

    My 10 year old female Standard Poodles was just diagnosed w/ low grade soft tissue sarcoma, incompletely excised. Location is her nose running parallel w/ her nasal bone. Further excision, in attempt to get clear margins, is questionable d/t location and lack of ample tissue. Recommendation is either Rad tx x 19 daily treatments or take wait see approach. Logistics and cost are somewhat of an issue but am seeking the best for my fur-kid. I would have to send her away for the 3.5 weeks etc. I an nervous about side effects but acute and chronic. Any insight would be much appreciated.
    Thank you!

    • Dr. Demian Dressler on October 3, 2012 at 8:01 pm

      Dear Stephanie
      I would like to help you…although im not sure how to answer this question.
      Perhaps this post will help?
      As to beneficial effect and the odds of side effects, this will depend a lot on the individual case, position, invasiveness, and other factors. I would try to get some approximations on what your dog will get out of the deal (added life expectancy, odds of shrinkage) and odds of side effect in terms of a percentage from the radiation oncologist or oncologist before hand. These specific questions should help clarify the situation.
      Best D

    • Dr. Susan Ettinger on October 9, 2012 at 4:16 pm

      Radiation after surgery is a very effective way to prevent recurrence. You are right, on the nose, surgery just cannot get wide enough margins to prevent recurrence. These tend to be very treatable tumors with low metastatic rates. The goal is to prevent recurrence.
      An alternative to radiation is trigonometric chemo – low dose oral chemo can delay recurrence. Not a good as tradition, but it is a good option if you decide against radation. There is also a chapter on soft tissue sarcomas in the Guide.
      Good luck, Dr Sue

  17. Karen Sala on September 13, 2012 at 5:08 pm

    Our dog just got done with the MW protocal and now the oncologist says she is a good canidate for half radiation therapy,,,,, 2 of them for 2 days in a row,,,, she has to be put under both days……. she is 9 years old and she had cancer in her abdomen,,,,, lymphomia,,,,,,, she is in remission now her last chemo was aug 16th,,,,,, after reading all these comments I am scared to death to do radiation,,,, espically when he said there is no conclusive results that it really does extend their remission,,,,,,, has anyone gone thru radiation for lmyphomia?

  18. Tammy Desborough on February 22, 2012 at 10:00 am

    Dr. Dressler

    we have a 7 year old irish wolfhound that has been diagnosed with an osteosarcoma on his roght hind leg (at the knee). we are taking him in for a bone biopsy, but the vet recommends that the therapy be amputation and radiation. he has had chest x-rays and they are clear so it has not metastasised to other parts of his body – yet. What are your feelings on amputation? He is such a big guy – 35 in at the shoulder and 165 lbs – I’m afraid that he will fall over! Is radiation by itself enough?

  19. Rhonda King on February 5, 2012 at 9:46 am

    my dog , husky, name is Ice. diagnosed with three seperate types of cancer. One growth removed twice. They can’t get it all because it has entered her chest cavity. It came back really fast this time and is growing rapidly. The other type is a tumor on her wrist. Third one in her mouth. A melianoma. Worried it will get into lymph nodes. It hasn’t yet. She is twelve. palliative radiation treatment has been recomended by one vet. Another surgery first. then radiation. She is otherwise healthy. If you can call it that. Looking for a non bias thought. Someone with experience in this area. Teatment for radiation this Thursday. Scared I’m I making the right decision.

  20. Redhedy on January 18, 2012 at 3:46 pm

    Shonica, would you email me. My doggy is at UF and diagnosed today with nasal cancer spread to brain. Any feedback would be appreciated. Hdamron@bellsouth.net

  21. Shonica on December 16, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    Dr. Dressler,
    I will first admit that I am about 25% of the way through the Guide, but I am in a situation now that will require action fairly quickly. Last week, my 9 year old Rottweiler/lab mix, King, was diagnosed with a nasal carcinoma with left submandibular lymph node metastasis. In addition to his CT and biopsies, he had a chest X-ray which showed no metastasis to his chest, thank God. Anyway, I have seen two oncologists. Our first oncologist recommended palliative radiation and Palladia, but the second oncologist’s clinic is doing a study with a two-week course of accelerated radiation in combination with Palladia. Unfortunately for us, my baby isn’t a candidate for the study because of the lymph node involvement, but both oncologists simply raved about the outcomes they have seen in their practice with Palladia. I went to see the second oncologist just after I had read about the use of Cyber Knife at UF in your book, so I asked her if she thought my dog would be a good candidate. She agreed with me that he may, and personally knows the head honcho at UF that does CyberKnife so she sent all of our records over to him. He said King is a good candidate. I have a consultation with him this coming week. It is just a really difficult decision to make with all of the expenses involved. I am leaning towards CyberKnife and Palladia, but I wanted to ask if you had any advice? Thanks for your time!

  22. gloria johnstone on March 11, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    our male German Shepherd Rain was diagnosed with bone cancer, and he did have radiation five years ago for another cancer. Now our next step is to see if it spread to his lungs. There’s no sign that he was even sick, but the leg he had the cancer in was basically getting worse. He was just checked last year for cancer, because we were going to do stem cell for him. Everything was o.k. less than 1 yr. ago. and he did have the stem cell, but it didn’t help. we know his leg will have to go this time we are just not sure about doing chemo we lost another Shepherd to that.

    • DemianDressler on March 19, 2011 at 5:39 pm

      Dear Gloria,
      have you read the treatment plan analysis section of the Guide? If not, it would be well worth your time and is an easy read. You need to get data right now. How old is your dog? What is the life expectancy without treatment? With treatment? Looking at this gives you your added life expectancy with the treatments. Side effects are certainly important, but they do not happen in all dogs, and even though you have had a bad experience it may be that the next one is not bad. You should also consider the gentler supportive strategies in the Guide: diet, apocaps, artemisinin, immune stimulation, and so on. I hope this helps,
      Dr D

  23. Deb on November 24, 2010 at 9:46 am

    I have a 10 yr old akita mix(she is eplieptic and on medication since she was under a year old) who has another “neurofibrosarcoma” on her right leg…she had one before in 2009..which I let get too big before I took her to the vet and she literally chewed the mass off her own leg (about the size of a hamburger)..needless to say the kitchen looked like a war zone that morning..emergency surgery was done to have the wound taken care of and the mass biopsied to find out what it was…she now has another one growing and according to my vet “it is about 4-5 cm over the lateral aspect and total length is close to 10 cm” he is saying that since this would be surgery #2 it would be hard to close the skin over and that the surgery would not be curative”…he has spoken to me of options of radiation,amputation and having her put down because of her age.Do you have any advice as to what can be done for this situatio?

    • DemianDressler on December 8, 2010 at 8:07 pm

      Dear Deb,
      We need to address diet, apoptogens, other supplements, and advances in conventional care. Have you read The Guide?? This is an easy read and is very useful for the topics I mentioned. Download the Dog Cancer Diet pdf at the top of this website at no charge. I use Apocaps for my patients. Consider Matrix 3 and Neoplasine. Please make sure health care steps are done under veterinarian supervision.
      Best, Dr D

  24. Cheryl on November 10, 2010 at 8:02 am

    My 4 year old Malamute had cyberknife radiaion in February for a very rare form of bone cancer, with excellent results. In October, she developed a delayed reaction at the site and has a painful sore that is not healing well. The veterinary specialists have been wonderful and are checking her regularly, but I am concerned about her lack of significant progress in healing. Is there any type of additional nutritional support we could provide to help the healing process? We change the bandage 2 – 3 times a day and keep the leg wrapped at all times.

  25. Nichelle on June 3, 2010 at 12:07 pm

    Dear Dr. Dressler,

    Ben was diagnosed with osteosarcom on April 14th, amputation was discussed but lung mets were already visible. Due to my knowledge of the pain associated with osteosarcoma I have decided to take a 12 hour trip to my nearest oncologist center and have radiation therapy done. Ben is 7 and in good health otherwise, he has also started pamidronate infusions 1 week ago. The oncologist indicated that due to Ben’s age and health he would be a great candidate for radiation therapy and side effects would be minimal. The first treatment was 2 days ago and last night he had quite an episode, really heavy panting and restlessness all night, I gave him a dose of tramadol but It did not work so I doubled the dose. (Still within his range) I am wondering if this could be a side effect of radiation therapy or just a coincidence. I hate to see him suffer like that… Thanks

    • Dr. Dressler on June 6, 2010 at 11:34 pm

      Dear Nichelle,
      it is possible that it is from the treatment, but it is very hard to say without laying hands on the dog. I would definitely have the oncologist’s direct input on this one and recheck Ben directly. You are doing a very good job being your dog’s guardian, by the way 🙂
      Dr D

  26. Bobby Bidwell on February 5, 2010 at 12:13 pm

    Dr. Dressler,
    Dr. Dressler,

    I didn’t realize these comments/questions were going to you directly. Please read above email comment about radiation. I have read where the combination of chemo and 1/2 1/2 body radiation can increase Lymphoma remission up to 2 years or more. I can’t remember the book but I read it at the book store and it was Complete Guide to Canine Health (I think it was something like that). It was a huge technical book. I was looking up supplement information.

    Bobby Bidwell

  27. Bobby Bidwell on February 5, 2010 at 9:41 am

    Our dog was diagnosed with Stage V a Lymphosarcoma 9/28/98 (Chemo started 9/29/09). She has completed chemo at MSU Vet School and went into remission within the first two weeks. We have a consultation in a week to discuss a recommended radiation program to prolong her remission. I believe it is a 1/2 body at a time treatment at a low dose level of radiation. It is not a long term radiation program. I don’t see this type of radiation program discussed in Dr. Dressler’s book. Have any of you been through this type of program and if so what were the side effects?

    Thank you,

    Bobby Bidwell

  28. Donna on November 30, 2008 at 5:26 pm

    does anyone have the absolute on hemangiosarcoma? my dogs mast was on the left chest outside the ribcage. I am unclear before our next consult as to the malignancy having been derived from the vascular endothelial cells. I am guessing that something bad invaded the dogs body broke down the immune system and developed this mast (we just had removed). thanks for any input

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