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

My Dog Has Cancer: What Do I Need to Know?

Updated: December 22nd, 2020


“My dog has cancer” … UGH. Read this to hear what dog lovers wish they knew from the beginning of their dog cancer journey. Lots of wisdom here!

My dog has cancer, and even after over ten years of helping others coping with dog cancer on this site and in our private Facebook group for readers of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide, I can honestly say: there are still things for me to learn.

Visit Dog Cancer Answers for show notes and useful resources

Cancer is, in a word, awful. It’s not just that it is disgusting and horrible and vicious. It’s that it is sneaky, underhanded, and great at figuring out how to survive everything we do to contain it.

When you are facing a foe like this one, it’s good to have support. That’s why I have been collecting answers from other dog lovers fighting this disease to answer the question

What do I wish I knew right off the bat?

I’m sure there are many, many things I will add to this article over the years to come. But for now, here are the most important answers from wise dog lovers who are fighting this fight ahead of you.

If your dog has cancer, this is the book to get. Like, today.

Keep Breathing

The most important thing to do is, of course, to keep breathing, as Cathy points out:

It’s true, a cancer diagnosis can literally take your breath away. That’s why Dr. Dressler puts emotional management exercises right up front in chapter 2. And the first is Take Three Deep Breaths.

Why is deep breathing so important?

Because we cannot learn unless we are in rest and digest — and when we are trying to understand our dog’s cancer and decide what to do, we MUST be able to learn.

Also, when we are calm, our dog is more calm. And that helps him or her to fight cancer.

When you take three deep, deliberate breaths, you activate the “rest and digest” part of your nervous system. When that system is activated, your “fight or flight” system HAS to go to sleep. In fact, recent research has shown that in order to stop the adrenaline cocktail of fight or flight, we can activate the rest and digest system by breath alone. When Dr. D included this in the book, this hadn’t been so thoroughly studied. But here is a good way to stimulate your rest and digest system so you can calm down, be present, and focus. I do this multiple times a day:

Breathe in through the nose for a count of five.

One Mississippi, Two Mississippi, Three Mississippi, Four Mississippi, Five Mississippi

Hold for a count of One Mississippi

Breathe out for a count of five.

One Mississippi, Two Mississippi, Three Mississippi, Four Mississippi, Five Mississippi

Repeat at least 8 times!

If you can breathe at a rate of about 5-7 breaths per minute, you will trigger the rest and digest system. So, maybe it shouldn’t be Three Deep Breaths in the book. Maybe it should be Five to Seven Deep Breaths.

Be Your Dog’s Health Advocate

This is another big one. The fact is that no one, and I mean no one, will advocate for your dog the way you will. Eileen agrees:

Having no regrets is a major goal here at We all regret our dog’s getting cancer, of course. But we won’t regret decisions we make to help our dog, especially if they are informed, considered, and based on the best information and resources we have. Read this article on your role as Guardian here.

Diagnosis Isn’t Always Easy and Can Take a While

Cynthia and Rob both know the pain of dog cancer diagnosis: there is no one, definitive test. Sometimes, blood work isn’t enough, and sometimes even imaging isn’t enough.

It’s easy to blame veterinarians for not catching it sooner, but the reality is that ALL cancers are caught “too late.” Cancerous cells are probably in our bodies (and our dogs’ bodies) all the time — but a perfect storm of awfulness is required for those cells to take root and grow. This excerpt from the book helps to address the question “Why didn’t my vet catch this sooner?

Don’t Watch and Wait: Get Imaging Done on a Regular Basis

I can personally attest to this: a dog might not have a visible lump to test. And if they do, sometimes vets want to “watch and wait.”

Make sure that you follow the Rule of One, as Dr. Ettinger calls it.

And here’s another book excerpt to tell you how we diagnose and stage cancer.

Get a Specialist On Board Quickly

Sometimes we think that our veterinarian, who has handled EVERYTHING so beautifully so far, should be able to handle cancer, as well. But if you had cancer, would you expect your GP to know all the best ways to treat it, and how to test for it accurately?

Getting a second opinion from a boarded oncologist is ALWAYS a good idea, but especially if you think you might use chemotherapy or radiation. In fact, having an oncologist supervise your tests — including the biopsy — can even save you money.

Like Karen points out, even a huge veterinary university hospital has its limits! Get a specialist on board if you can.

Prognosis Is a Guess, Not a Death Sentence

Do you know what the word “prognosis” means?

Prognosis means “guess.”

So when you hear, “six weeks” or “two months” remember: it’s just a guess!

Here’s how Dr. Ettinger thinks about the numbers we use to answer the question: how much time do I have?

Your Dog Doesn’t Think About Time the Way You Do

Mike Hall really nails this one piece of advice that many readers have for you: dogs are about unconditional love in the moment, not living a long time.

This is always helpful to me. Whenever I get sad about my Kanga and Roo getting older, whenever I think about how little time I (might) have left with them, I remember that one fantastic day for them is like a lifetime of pleasure. So, more days of snuggling, running on the beach, and delicious meals and playtime!

Think Outside the Box

This advice comes up over and over, and is exactly why Dr. Dressler first wrote The Dog Cancer Survival Guide: Full Spectrum Treatments to Optimize Life Quality and Longevity.

There is no “one right way” to treat cancer. It’s not like a broken leg. It’s sneaky and vicious and fights on many fronts. So …

We fight on all fronts. Dr. Dressler’s Full Spectrum approach literally incorporates everything from chemo to prayer/good vibes: as long as it has been shown it might help, it’s included.

Don’t think your veterinarian can be so open-minded? Look for Full Spectrum veterinarians in the comments on this post.

Quality of Life Matters to Your Dog (and to You)

We can really get caught up in the intricacies of cancer treatments. We can also spend a lot of money on them, as Katie points out:


But in Full Spectrum cancer care, many of the treatments we use are FREE, because they focus on life quality.

This doesn’t mean we “give up” on our dog. It means we keep our head clear (using that deep breathing, right?) and we choose options that make sense for OUR dog and for US.

Ask the hard questions of your veterinarian about what the unseen cost of treatments are. It’s not just money you are spending. It’s time and possibly, life quality. Get as firm an idea ahead of time as you can.

There May Be a Time to Let Go

As Britta points out, and as Dr. Dressler recommends, a great technique to use is list-making. Right away, make your list of quality of life items for your dog:

And when you start to wonder about whether “that time” is near, please take those deep breaths and don’t panic. There are warning signs when life draws to an end, and if you know what they are, it will help.

In the end, it can surprise even the most “rational” and stoic of humans, like it surprised Millie:

If you feel the inevitable guilt, just remember it is normal. And it doesn’t mean you were a bad parent. Here’s an article that might help give you some perspective.

You Might Feel Guilty About Things You Didn’t Know

It’s REALLY common for us to find out that something we thought was a normal, basic lifestyle choice could have contributed to our dog’s cancer. Even though there isn’t one thing that will definitely cause cancer in dogs, we still can feel really, really, REALLY guilty if we did something, used something, or fed something that might have helped cancer take root.

But really, honestly, keep this in mind: cancer is the number one killer of dogs because of countless reasons. It’s not just because you used a flea/tick medication. It’s not just because you used lawn chemicals (or the city did). It’s also because our entire environment is now awash in toxins. That is having an effect on our health, and our dogs’ health, as well.

Ask Questions and Don’t Make Assumptions

Karen makes a series of excellent points in her post:

There is a lot to understand, and a lot that your experts might not actually know. And it can feel like you are all alone when it comes to making decisions. That’s when a good Treatment Plan Analysis can help.

Warm Aloha,


Further Reading & Research About Vagal Nerve Stimulation

Natural Vagus Nerve Stimulation, by Dr. Ariell Schwartz

Vagus Nerve Exercises from the Anxiety Recovery Centre of Victoria

Wellness Mama’s excellent article on How to Stimulate Vagus Nerve Function

Leave a Comment

  1. Sherrie Ditzenberger on December 1, 2021 at 1:28 am

    Wyatt,working dog,9.5 yrs. Has had preventive care since 9 mos.He lacked a necessary enzyme in his saliva. So every yr. then every 6 mos. he’s had his teeth cleaned. January 2020 he was hit by a truck, cracked neck, cracks in hips& internal bleeding. I brought him home ,after er visit. He was supposedly going to die. He didn’t. Now because he started to have discharge from penis I took him in. No UTI, yellow discharge from sheath? Tested no bacteria or infection. Yet ultrasound showed mass in bladder. 1/3 rd. pees normal stream. I don’t have funds to do biopsy nor any treatment except home cooked diet, supplements etc. Plan re ultra sound in 3 mos. My vet is new,due to a state move . She’s young. No diet mentioned or any thing except biopsy if cancer chemo.I can’t do all that to him. He is a working dog, I have a brain injury & long term PTSD. He IS my lifeline & my life companion. I don’t think I can watch him decline. Nor suffer from disease or treatments I can’t afford. I am a disabled certified P.A. I cared for the dying. Then my father mother & last my new husband all at home. Iam alone.63. Any advice??

  2. NormanWilkes on February 5, 2020 at 6:34 pm

    What are some symptoms that are easy for us to know that our dogs get cancer? It’s my big concern now.

  3. Dave Kovalski on January 30, 2020 at 5:07 am

    I used the K9 Immunity product (chewable treats and ez for dogs with little appetite when sick) from a company called Aloha Medicinals. My dog, KC, had lymphoma and was diagnosed at Univ of Pennsylvania Vet Hospital. They gave her only 6 months and I found that as totally unacceptable. I devoted all my time to alternative treatments and decided on the K9 Immunity. The vets at Penn were astonished at KC’s progress and called her a miracle dog. She stayed w me for a year and a half after that initial prognosis of only having 6 months to live. I hear Apocaps are good too but I never tried them. The K9 Immunity, I can sincerely tell you, helped my dog immensely. I tell everyone at my vets office who might need some advice on what to do. Thank you for reading.

  4. jan gordon on January 29, 2020 at 4:25 pm

    I wish someone had warned me that nexgard was so dangerous. I gave my healthy competition agility dog one pill and the next day he started having various problems that vets dismissed and made fun of me. After a few months the 3rd vet diagnosed him with stage 4 lymphoma. I put off seeing a vet when he stopped eating and drinking because of the horrible treatment I had received from vets. Although I found a caring vet I have pretty much lost trust in vets now that I know big pharma owns them. I learned so much from my dog, I said he was my zen master. I learned how hard it is to love unconditionally when caring for a dying best friend that took so much work. But he gave so much right up to the end.

  5. Christl on January 29, 2020 at 1:03 pm

    I wish I’d known that the VERY slight changes in my dogs’ fur as well as their teeth several months before were indicators this horrid monster had crept into our lives. Unfortunately for Greyhounds, by the time you get a definite cancer diagnosis, it’s too late.

  6. Kathy wieland on January 29, 2020 at 12:28 pm

    I would have to say Educate your self on your Dogs Cancer. For me Pray God was there for me . The Dog Cancer Survival guide. When I purchased the book I truly felt like Cancer was not that big . I had options. My best friend his name is Phin he was diagnosed in 2015 with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia . I say we because I told Phin this was are journey .

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