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

Facing Dog Cancer? This Is Your First Priority

Updated: May 7th, 2021


Want to help your dog with cancer? Learn this, FIRST — it’s the foundation of every cancer journey.

When I first read The Dog Cancer Survival Guide, I was astonished to find out what our number one priority should be when it comes to helping our dogs with cancer.

According to author Dr. Demian Dressler, our priority has nothing to do with our dog’s illness.

“Right out of veterinary school, I would have said ‘Figure out which treatment is going to help the most,’” Dr. Dressler writes.

“But today, after years of experience and research, and with still no magical cure for cancer, I have a different answer.

Your first priority is to clear your mind and heart of emotional upset, to manage the negative emotions as much as possible.

Your second priority is to ramp up your positive emotions and reconnect with your deepest love for your dog.

Nothing else – and I mean nothing else – is more important. It’s your absolute first priority.

All of your treatment decisions, all of your actions, will benefit from this first step. And it’s the most important way to help your dog all along the way.”

There are two reasons why this is so important, as Dr. Dressler points out in his book.

All of your treatment decisions, all of your actions, will benefit from this first step.

Dogs Pick Up on Our Mental and Emotional State

The first reason it’s important to calm down is that our dogs pick up on our emotions.

When we’re agitated, depressed, angry, guilty, resentful, confused, blaming, afraid, frustrated, exhausted, or any of the other very common reactions to our dog’s cancer, our dogs pick up on it.

They might not understand our reasons for being upset – but they understand that we ARE upset.

Dogs naturally want us to be happy, content, and calm. They feel bad when we feel bad. It’s part of the power of our bond.

But it doesn’t help our dogs to feel down when they have cancer. In fact, it might be quite the opposite.

That’s why Dr. Dressler’s included what he calls Brain Chemistry Modification in his Full Spectrum approach to cancer.

Brain chemistry modification is all about increasing your dog’s joy quotient and minimizing any sources of depression.

And since our emotional state directly impacts the emotional state of our dogs, it’s critical that we manage our own emotions in a responsible way.

A Brain under Stress Makes Bad Decisions

The second reason managing our emotional state is so important is that a brain under stress can make bad decisions.

Numerous studies show that when we are emotionally upset, our brains tend to shut down critical thinking.

There are lots of things that can happen next:

  • We lose the ability to see the big picture.
  • We can’t learn new information.
  • We latch onto a piece of information that matches our emotions or beliefs, and ignore other facts that don’t match.
  • We tend to not listen well, which means we have a hard time understanding what’s going on.
  • We have a hard time remembering information.

When we’re under stress, we tend to fall back on unconscious patterns, rather than logic, to make decisions.

We have an instinctive tendency to make automatic decisions, without processing all of the available information.

This can lead to disastrous results when we face big decisions about how to treat our dog.

Here are two examples of ways that brains under stress can mess up:

  1. Alice tends to trust authority figures, and likes to think that when an expert is “in charge,” all is going to turn out well. So when her vet tells her “surgery might help reduce the tumor and give us more time,” she actually hears “I’ll take that tumor out completely, and then your dog will be cured.” Alice decides to do the surgery, but ends up broken-hearted (and angry) when her dog’s cancer isn’t completely cured.
  2. John once watched a relative go through chemotherapy, and it was painful and terrible, and in the end, his loved one died. When the vet recommends chemotherapy for his dog, he assumes that the treatments will also be painful and terrible, and that they won’t help. He declines chemo for his dog’s lymphoma, and then later obsesses about whether it was the right choice, given the statistics on that type of cancer.

We Experience More Stress in Uncertain Situations

Even the most logical of human minds don’t think well under stress. This is especially true if there is a great deal of complexity in the situation, or if there are big gaps in knowledge.

When we are under stress, we want to KNOW the answers to our questions.

We feel as if we must find out the answers to every question we have, and we search and demand and ask until we are satisfied.

Unfortunately, when it comes to cancer, we usually don’t have nearly enough information.

In fact, one of the most sobering things Dr. Dressler relates in his book is how very little we really know about cancer.

We rarely know exactly how it started, exactly why it started, exactly when it started, if it has definitely spread, if it is definitely going to spread, if a treatment “will work” or not …

… and possibly worst question of all: how much time does my dog have?

The answer to all of these questions is usually “We’re not sure.”

And that answer is likely to drive a brain under stress crazy. It makes for great distraction.

We can’t focus on anything else.

We can’t accept that answer and move on to more important topics … because we don’t believe that there are more important topics!

We Must Assume Our Brains Aren’t Working Well Now

When dealing with dog cancer, we must, no matter how rational or unemotional we tend to be in our regular life, assume that our brains aren’t working at their best.

And we must do something about it, for the sake of our dogs.

“Like it or not, you are the ‘X factor’ in treating your dog’s cancer,” Dr. Dressler once told us.

“Your mind and heart can be your best advisors, or your worst enemies.”

Reading Chapter 2 Is Mission Critical

For this very reason, chapter 2 in The Dog Cancer Survival Guide is filled with “mission-critical” emotional management techniques.

Dr. Dressler has put together exercises – most of which take only a few minutes – that can reduce stress, calm down negative emotions, and clear the mind.

He puts them right upfront because they will be needed as you read the rest of the book, consult with your veterinarian, and interact with your dog.

If you like listening to stuff like this, I recommend getting The Dog Cancer Coping Guide, which was Dr. Dressler’s very first publication about dog cancer.

It’s an hour long, and in it, he leads you through several of the exercises that show up in his book.

It’s calming to listen to.

Dr. Dressler also talks about emotional management in several seminars in the Ask Dr. Dressler seminar series. For example, this one will give you amazing insight into how your grief can interact with your dog’s cancer.

Emotional Management Is Foundational to Every Effort

Emotional management can feel like a waste of time to those of us who are really goal-driven.

But in fact, we’ve seen over and over that taking the time and energy to clear our minds and hearts leads to better decisions.

And better decisions mean better help for our dogs.

When your dog has cancer, there is little help that feels like “real help.”

All any of us want to do is just make it all go away.

We wish we could just make our dog better.

It’s our sincere hope that as you practice the exercises, calm down, and get support as you need it, your connection to your dog will deepen and strengthen.

Because really, all our dogs want is to feel good.

And when we are calm and clear, we can often find a way to help that happen … especially when we’re able to learn without distractions.



Leave a Comment

  1. Ricki on June 17, 2014 at 9:31 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing all of those helpful thoughts. We have just received the unfortunate news that our lovable Eskimo/Spaniel Mix was just diagnosed with Lymphoma. She is still happy and in good spirits. The vet said that we have a great chance at keeping her healthy if we act fast. We have spent most of our savings for her chemo treatments, but it seem that she will need more to stay well. Please consider helping our dog Cali get Chemo treatments and fight her Lymphoma. Learn more about Cali and to help:

  2. andy on January 29, 2014 at 1:33 pm

    Hi Kelly, just found this site and reading as much as I can. My boy too is in very similar situation and he is over 13 and a Rotty and in my country amputation, chemo etc is not a regular practice. I have elected to basically go through the palliative route and thus far he is holding up well – on anti inflams and opiates for pain. I think it is critical that you know your dog best and understand where he/she is at etc. I’m just doing it one day at a time – what’s best for him ultimately – he has good days and bad. I sleep with him every night, stay really positive and keep my negative emotions away from him as much as possible. Believe me that has made a huge difference to his demeanour. I know its scary and upsetting but you have to be very strong in your resolve – almost take yourself completely out of the equation. Being scared is not an option – by all means do the surgery thing is appropriate and if not be prepared, and most likely depending on the nature of the cancer even with surgery the final outcome will probably be just the same but maybe more drawn out, that it isn’t going to be nice. It breaks my heart to watch my boy slowly go down hill but I am doing everything possible (making sure i get enough sleep, keep things in perspective etc etc) to ensure that I am presenting to him the most together and positive mindset I can to give him assurance etc.
    Once you have made a commitment to stay the course put all your energy into that and it becomes much more focused and positive for the time left. I feel mercinary just writing this but I know I am doing the best thing I can for my boy. Its bloody hard to put sentiment aside but sometimes it is the best thing – in order to be able to respect their dignity and essential ‘doginess’.
    At the moment he’s drinking and feeding and toileting well depsite osteosarcoma and now nasty looking lip tumour. I’m medicating him at frequent intervals – morning, going home at lunchtime from work, and late evenings and it seems to be working pretty well. He still manages 20-30 minutes slow ambling walks which I do once, sometimes twice a day and the rest of the time I just make sure I’m giving him really positive vibes. According to my vet he probably shouldn’t even still be alive and touch wood his breathing is sound at present so lungs sound clear and not laboured at all. I know the time is coming when I’ll have to make the ultimate decision but at the moment it is one day at a time, knowing that there will be bad days (had several of those and thought that that was it) but then he bounces right back. I guess I will just know when the balance is no longer right. I’m a big tough guy, but I’ll be brutally honest – I cry like a baby over this but never around him. I’ve just got through my own cancer issues last year (I’m one of the lucky ones – got it in time) and I have lost peeps very close to me through cancer so alot of this is very raw to me and brings up alot of raw emotions etc but like I said – deal with it away from your best friend and keep your positive dignified self for them.
    My understanding is that in many cases once osteo has been detected in the bone then chances are, even with amputation and chemo/radio whatever it will most likely get into the lungs etc. Have read alot too of success stories but I would suspect that in the majority of cases the outcome hasn’t been so favourable. Again, the decision is ultimately yours so in conjunction with your good vet etc you will have to weigh it up as best you can. Whatever you do do it out of genuine love and respect for your friend and know that you are doing the best you can for her.
    All the best and plenty of hugs and kisses for her.

    • Susan Kazara Harper on January 29, 2014 at 2:07 pm

      Hi Andy and Kelly, Lovely comments Andy, and I do feel for you both in my heart, having had two dogs with cancer. To me the bottom line is this; a day will come for us all to move on. Thought it can sound trite, the moment really is all that matters, and if when this journey ends, for ourselves or our dogs, we can say “I did everything I could, I have no regrets”, we can wish for nothing more. And doing ‘everything’ doesn’t mean every expense, every treatment possible. It means making the best decisions for our beloved one. Our dogs know everything we put into their care. Yes it hurts, but my goodness doesn’t the love that drives it feel wonderful. All the best to you both.

      • Suzanne Fong on July 25, 2014 at 7:13 am

        Thank you Susan, that is wonderful and oh so true.

  3. Susan Kazara Harper on January 17, 2014 at 4:07 am

    Kelly, I know it’s a scary situation, but there is so much you can do, and many of us who have been through it. So, we’re here for you. I really encourage you to look at , it’s a fantastic website all about dogs who don’t all have four legs. Dr Dressler has also written about how well dogs cope in The Dog Cancer Survival Guide book, and there is a very informative, short video by Drs Dessler and Ettinger. Go to These references will give you some really good, positive outlooks on the amputation solution. We take it harder than our dogs do, but I have personally seen many dogs go through losing one leg and be absolutely thriving and happy within a couple of days. Please check out the resources and take some deep breaths. Let me know if we can help any further. Give your girl a cuddle from me — what’s her name?

  4. kelly on January 16, 2014 at 6:46 pm

    ,my dog has just been diagnosed with osteosarcoma and given 2-5 months. I had her lungs xrayed and there is no mass there yet, so have to quickly make the decision to amputate and do chemo or let her go. this is a large dog and only me to look after her. I am a small female so would not be able to lift her. could anyone offer advice. I am so scared I can’t think clearly

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