by David F. Kramer
Few diagnoses in the veterinary world bring more pain to the chest of a dog owner than one simple word: cancer. The mind instantly goes to the perceived harshness of chemotherapy or radiation treatments, possible remission, and perhaps a greater still possibility of losing the battle altogether.
Despite the connotations of cancer, conditions such as kidney and heart disease can be much more difficult to treat and have a poorer chance of survival—but this doesn’t stop the specter of cancer from casting a dark shadow over your pet and family.
As is the case with humans, there are a multitude of cancers that affect the organs and systems of our dogs. Included in this are tumors of the skin, digestive, respiratory, musculoskeletal, reproductive tracts, and nervous system, and blood-borne cancers.
An obvious first question to a diagnosis of cancer in our dogs is simply, why? The simple answer is that there is no definitive reason. While some cancers are more specific to certain breeds, factors such as age, genetics, and environmental and lifestyle factors also play a role. There is no reliable formula to determine whether or not your dog may one day be afflicted.
Recognizing the Signs of Cancer in Dogs
According to Veterinary Oncologist Dr. MJ Hamilton of Crown Veterinary Services in Lebanon, NJ, there are many signs that could be indicative of cancer. “Usually, we’ll see big changes at home. So things like decreased mobility, lethargy and changes in appetite, collapse, or inability to urinate,” says Dr. Hamilton.
While those signs can be a result of many other conditions, says Dr. Hamilton, a diagnosis of cancer comes from further testing. “Usually it’s during a workup that you’ll find it; either through an ultrasound, biopsy, or cytology.”
Treating Cancer in Dogs
When it comes to treatment of cancer in dogs and other pets, they are generally the same as in humans—chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. Veterinary medicine has made some recent strides in treatments, such as immunotherapy or antibody therapy, but these are less prevalent than the first line treatments.
The course of your dog’s treatment will be determined by your veterinarian or veterinary oncologist, and will depend on the type of cancer, as well as other factors.
While chemotherapy is a blanket term for using drugs to combat disease, such treatments for cancer come in several forms. According to Dr. Joanne Intile, staff oncologist at the East End Veterinary Emergency and Specialty Center in Riverhead, NY, chemotherapy can be administered orally, intravenously, topically, subcutaneously, intramusculary, intratumorally (directly into a tumor), or intracavitary (directly into a body cavity).
Chemotherapy can be adjuvant: used after a tumor is removed in the hopes of killing the remaining or residual cancer cells; neoadjuvant: which is used prior to surgery in the hopes of reducing the size of an existing tumor; or induction: which is used to hasten remission for specific blood borne cancers.
The majority of dogs treated with chemotherapy don’t suffer any serious side effects at all. Unlike people, most dogs will not lose their fur during chemotherapy, but some breeds (those with continuously growing haircoats like poodles and Old English Sheepdogs) might experience some thinning of hair. Your dog might also experience temporary diarrhea or vomiting and have less of an appetite between treatments. These side effects are typically mild and treatable at home. The chance of a severe reaction, one requiring a trip to the veterinarian or hospitalization, is less than five percent.
Chemotherapy can result in a lowering of red and white blood cell counts, which can affect the immune system and the ability to fight infection. Your vet will keep track of your dog’s progress through bloodwork, and may make changes in the dosage or choices of drug that are used for treatment.
Depending upon the type of cancer and how it is affecting your dog, your vet may recommend radiation therapy rather than chemotherapy.
Dr. Rick Chetney Jr., of VRC in Malvern, PA, is a veterinary oncologist who specializes in radiation treatments to fight cancer. “Radiation therapy is a localized therapy, like surgery,” says Dr. Chetney.
“It’s often used for tumors that we can’t surgically remove because they’re up against necessary structures such as the heart or brain. Chemotherapy is a systemic treatment—once we inject it, it goes all throughout the body battling microscopic disease when it starts spreading to other locations. Again, radiation is more localized.”
“A definitive radiation therapy protocol is given once daily—usually with between 16 and 20 daily treatments—so it takes about three or four weeks,” says Dr. Chetney. “An individual treatment takes about an hour and a half to two hours, and most of that time is spent waiting for the patient to become sleepy from the sedative, and then later to recover from the anesthesia. The treatment itself only takes about 5-10 minutes.”
Animals are given varying levels of sedation for radiation treatments, mainly to keep them still, but there’s no direct pain from the radiation treatment itself.
If you live close enough to your treating oncologist, you might be able to bring your dog to its daily radiation treatments. If distance is an issue, the animal can be boarded during the week for treatments and be permitted to go home to recuperate over the weekend. Your dog is apt to be tired at home, but this is more an effect of the anesthesia than the treatment.
How Much Does it Cost to Treat a Dog for Cancer?
Once a cancer diagnosis is determined, among the first considerations is cost. Even if you do research on this topic, you may find very little definitive information. Consulting with your vet or oncologist will certainly help get a ballpark figure for a route of treatment, but he or she may be hesitant on nailing down a specific figure. No protocol is 100 percent guaranteed to work, even for the most treatable types, and subsequent treatments might be required.
Simply put, as with so many other things in life, terms like reasonable, expensive, or exorbitant are all in the eye of the beholder. For the financially secure, money indeed might be no object when it comes to cancer treatment for their dogs. Especially devoted pet owners of modest means may be of this same mindset initially, but as costs begin to mount, a serious look needs to be taken in the decision to continue treatment. Those in a financial bind might not be able to even consider treatment.
Veterinary insurance is an option and should cover cancer treatment (most likely partially)—but as is the case with people, rules concerning pre-existing conditions will most likely prevent you from getting coverage once your dog has been diagnosed. Your veterinary oncologist will lay out a treatment plan and proposed rate, but there are many factors that can affect the eventual cost, as well as aftercare.
“It varies wildly, and it’s something I really can’t answer,” says Dr. Hamilton. “There are some cancers that are very affordable and inexpensive to treat, and others that really start to add up. Some cancers can be a couple hundred dollars a month, and others that start to add up into the thousands before you’re done. Everything is completely customized to that pet, what we know, and what the wishes of the family are.”
According to the National Canine Cancer Foundation, an initial visit to confirm a cancer diagnosis can be upwards of $200. Major surgery to remove a cancerous tumor deep inside the body, or that will require reconstruction, can start at $1,500. Chemotherapy treatments might range from $200 to $2,000, depending upon the type and severity of the cancer. Radiation therapy can range from $2,000 to $6,000 or higher. You will also need to factor in prescriptions that might be needed for aftercare, such as pain meds or antibiotics—which could cost another $30 to $50 per month for an indefinite period.
Natural Remedies and Diet for Dogs with Cancer
During and after treatment for cancer, dog owners might be tempted to look to the East for more traditional holistic medicine. One such veterinarian who uses the Eastern approach is Dr. Patrick Mahaney of Los Angeles, CA, who specializes in natural and alternative treatments for pets. According to Dr. Mahaney, this type of pet care is imperative before a cancer diagnosis and should begin once you decide to own an animal.
“It’s crucial that all veterinarians and pet owners be attuned to whole-body health, even when a pet is diagnosed with cancer and is going through surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy,” says Dr. Mahaney.
“What’s not totally addressed in the veterinary oncology community is nutrition. We’re so dependent on processed, commercially available pet foods, primarily kibble, and really it’s not the ideal thing for any pet to eat. It’s fairly simple to make dietary changes to a whole-food based diet that can really benefit whole-body health.”
Dr. Mahaney is dubious of most of the current state of available pet foods that make up the multi-million dollar pet food industry. It all begins, he says, with the concepts of “feed grade” products that are welcome for animals, but judged unsuitable to be fed to humans.
“Even if you can’t afford such pets foods—they can be prepared at home with fresh meat and vegetables instead of kibble,” says Dr. Mahaney.
“Whole food feeding is key. Human grade ingredients have lower thresholds for certain substances that can be toxic—even carcinogenic. Mold-produced toxins (called mycotoxins), including Aflatoxin and Vomitoxin, can irritate the intestines, supress the immune system, and are carcinogenic (cancer causing). You want to be sure that while your pet is being treated that their food is not going to further contribute to cancer.”
While a diagnosis of cancer in your dog is by no means a death sentence, it’s sure to be a stressful time for both dogs and their families. Your veterinarian and veterinary oncologist will work with you to find the best choice of treatment and help walk you through any costs and difficulties that come with it.
This article was verified and edited for accuracy by Dr. Joanne Intile, DVM, DACVIM