When is a Pet Too Old for Cancer Treatment?
I have a soft spot in my heart for geriatric pets. I’m a sucker for the graying muzzle of an elderly Labrador retriever. I relish scratching the fuzzy face of a cranky senior cat. All pets are special, but the extensive history and regal personalities attached to the aged ones is something I simply can’t resist.
As a veterinary oncologist, older pets are a substantial part of my professional life. Cancer occurs most frequently in pets over the age of 10 and companion animals are living longer now than ever before. I encounter animals of all ages, but most of my time is spent with the elderly.
On a personal level, I love senior pets for all they represent: unconditional love, steadfast loyalty, and sensible temperaments. They’re guaranteed to stand by their owners at all times and diligently maintain their roles as guardians, companions, and soul mates, even when their bodies become less capable of maintaining their self-designated responsibilities.
When I meet with owners of older pets, I love to hear them tell stories of their pets’ lives. Whether owned since they were puppies or kittens or acquired later on in life, as mature dogs and cats, there’s infinite opportunities for me to discover the role that animal played in their family’s lives.
I frequently encounter owners who feel their pet’s age is a barrier to cancer treatment. A diagnosis of cancer is devastating regardless of age, but can be especially difficult when an animal is older and an owner faces making diagnostic and treatment choices. They are often concerned about putting their beloved companion through too much at their advanced age. They will often equate it to what they would consider medically and ethically appropriate for an elderly human being.
I understand the apprehension about pursuing intensive medical care for animals in general, and certainly can appreciate how magnified these worries would be for owners of older pets.
I try to reassure owners that the majority of information about risks for side effects and prognosis were determined on older animals. I’ll also often recommend additional testing to ensure the overall health of their pet is intact prior to making definitive recommendations for their cancer care. I’m equally as concerned as they are with their pet’s health and with confirming they are good candidates for treatment.
Fortunately, when the primary recommendation isn’t a reasonable plan for an individual pet, veterinary oncologists are usually able to offer anxious owners several different options. It’s my job, in such cases, to recognize when to discuss alternatives to the standard of care.
For example, when aggressive surgery is not an option because an owner feels their pet is too old to withstand the operation, veterinary oncologists are able to offer less intensive chemotherapy therapies, most often designed to slow tumor growth and metastases while maintaining an excellent quality of life. Though we may compromise our chance for a cure, we are able to extend an animal’s expected lifespan and simultaneously ensure that their remaining time is spent as happy and healthy as possible.
Many owners attribute some of the earliest signs of cancer to “old age” or on an assumption their pet is “slowing down” as it ages. Routine visits to the animal’s primary care veterinarian may provide the opportunity to detect disease at an earlier stage, further supporting the concept of extending its quality of life for as long as possible.
Senior pets ask so little from their owners. Their mellow demeanor and relaxed personalities remind us of the remarkable nature of the human-animal bond and just how impenetrable that bond can be.
If you’re an owner of an older pet facing a diagnosis of cancer, I urge you to consider consultation with a veterinary oncologist. Express your concerns and discuss your goals with your veterinarian. There’s a great chance that together you will be able to determine an option that fits both your goals and your pet’s best interests; one that takes their age into account but isn’t limited by a single physical characteristic.