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

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

Updated: November 4th, 2019


“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.

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.

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

Discover the Full Spectrum Approach to Dog Cancer

Leave a Comment

  1. jan gordon on July 28, 2019 at 5:32 pm

    I wish I knew that nexgard flea pill was absolute poison and it gave him lymphoma. all the internal flea pills are neurotoxins and kill dogs. his insides were ruined so not even the best care helped, he reacted bizarrely to everything. reiki, seeing friends he loved and swimming till he died were the only things that helped.

  2. Kelly McGrath on July 16, 2019 at 4:07 pm

    I wish I would have known about the Dog Cancer Diet and the benefits of dandelion root extract. Maybe my PeeWee would not have gone through surgery. Now I low boil raw lean meat and broccoli, kale, and the other recommended vegetables.
    She is a Mini Applehead Chihuahua at 11 years old. After surgury, the lump under and behind her jaw has almost gone from gulf ball size to nothing. I wish that she will make it until the Lord comes to get her. Not a one-way ride to the vets.
    I am thankful to everyone that has helped her. And for all of the information that is available. We are three weeks past the due date the Vet gives us for her to live after surgery.

  3. Rebecca Cardenas on July 16, 2019 at 3:21 pm

    Stop feeding your dogs “dog food”. It is highly processed crap. How healthy do you think you would be if you ate McDonalds crappy food for every meal all of your life? Feed your buddies “real food”. It’s not hard. Do a little research and feed them a good, real food diet. Highly processed “food” is not healthy for you or your dog.

  4. Barbara Duke on July 16, 2019 at 4:04 am

    I’ve had four dogs in the last six years with cancers. I lost my first five years ago, oral cancer. Should you let any surgeon do surgery before seeing an oncologist? The clinic I used then had an orthopedic surgeon come once a week and they suggested him. There was no discussion of my dog seeing an oncologist or follow-up treatment in case all of the cancer was removed in surgery. By the time I got guidance from another vet, to take him to UT Knoxville, TN it had spread mid-mouth. Palliative Radiation gave me a few more months with him. But he also suffered Bloat. The tumor was gone, he still had cancer in the jaw bone. So with the Bloat, I let him cross the Rainbow Bridge. I lost my next one to lung cancer. Didn’t even know he had it until it was too late. I let him cross the bridge, December 2017. Same year, Thanksgiving I learned my female had stomach cancer, a tumor about the size of a baseball. It was advanced. She saw an oncologist who talked about treatment, but since I didn’t have the money and could not get CareCredit or other help, he and my vet said to just keep her comfortable. She crossed the bridge January 2018. My first three the cancer was inside couldn’t see signs until it too late. June 2018 I adopted a Cattle Dog Mix, Australian. Towards the end of October a small lump appeared on her right side. At first I was told it’s most likely a fatty tumor. It had grown to about the size of an egg by mid-November. Took her to my vet, she did some cell pull and sent it to the lab, came back a soft tissue sarcoma. With the holidays upon us, she said it was early stage, so wait until after the holidays to talk surgery. Again I was up against money. It was slow growing. Early February it had gotten about the size of a half of a baseball. My fear was I’m going to lose another to cancer. December I took her to our local Petco for picture with Santa. The manage there suggested I check out their Petco/Blue Buffalo Cancer Fund. I did. She had to first go through a Baseline Assessment. The only place in TN that got the Grant was UT Knoxville. So I took her there for the assessment. During the assessment they found a smaller one on her right hind paw. Surgery and after treatment, 9000-10000. But the grant only paid for radiation. I had to raise the 5000+ for the surgery. I applied to several pet medical/caner organizations. Was decline by most from Ridel Cody to Magic Bullet to Red Rover then some. I did a gofundme, facebook fund raising post, I didn’t get a lot of donations. The only two who would help towards her surgery was For the Love of Alex, I found on a fb group for parents with pets with cancer. They gave and so did Mosby Foundation. She had surgery in May and is doing great. All of the right side lump cancer cells were gotten. Just a trace left in her right hind paw. The cancer was a low grade one with a ten percent regrowth.

    I wish we could find out what causes cancer in our pets. I worry about regrowth. I wonder what I may had did to cause all of my pets’ cancers.

  5. Mike Thornton on July 16, 2019 at 3:45 am

    Thanks for your leadership in helping us fight this horrible nemesis, CANCER.
    Actually… I wanted to go back to a few warning signs that I ignored months before HSA diagnosis. Pebbles, my 13 1/2 year old Shih-Tzu, was 26 lbs. of pure muscle, I nicknamed her Muscle Butt. One day I’m walking behind her and I noticed her back end looking slightly thinner. Around this time, Pebbles also stopped licking my face at bedtime, which struck me as very odd. From then on, she was on a progressively slow downward spiral.
    5 months later, January 9th, 2018 came the Cancer diagnosis. The splenic tumor was had engulfed her heart to the point that our Vet was struggling to hear her heart beat.
    Then I stumbled upon The Dog Cancer Diet. I was not going down without a fight. With Dr. Dressler’s help of course, I developed the Pebbles Protocol. She lived until May 13th of this year, until she fell of the bed and suffered extreme head/brain trauma, and we had to put her down.
    I believe she had beat the cancer, but was suffering from Renal Failure most of this year. If I would have had the pillows at the foot of the bed, I think Pebbles would still be with us.
    I also believe dogs are one of God’s special ways of showing us how much He loves us. They are such awesome creatures!

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