Reviewed and updated for accuracy on August 27, 2019 by Dr. Hanie Elfenbein, DVM, PhD
Few diagnoses in the veterinary world bring more pain to a dog owner than one simple word: cancer.
The mind instantly goes to the perceived harshness of chemotherapy, surgery or radiation treatments; the likelihood of remission; and the possibility of losing the battle altogether.
And while conditions such as kidney and heart disease can be more difficult to treat—and have a poorer chance of survival than some types of cancer—this doesn’t stop the specter of cancer from casting a dark shadow over your pet and family.
Canine cancer is common enough that you are likely to hear those words from your veterinarian, but there are many options for treatment and care.
Can You Cure Cancer in Dogs?
In veterinary medicine, the goal of cancer treatment is entering remission, not curing it.
Why? The reason is that aiming for curative treatment would make too many dogs sick. Veterinarians take into account the dosage of treatments and the symptoms they cause. Lower doses can be used to achieve remission, and in some cases, to cure it.
As part of the protocol for treating canine cancer, veterinarians made the decision that dogs should not feel sick during treatment. You cannot explain to your dog that he has to go through bad days now in hopes of having good days later.
Dog Cancer Treatment Options
The course of your dog’s cancer treatment will be determined by your veterinarian or veterinary oncologist, and will depend on the type of cancer as well as other factors specific to your dog.
Your vet may recommend chemotherapy, radiation or surgery, or a combination of these dog cancer treatments.
If symptoms relating to chemotherapy or radiation therapy cannot be treated with supplementary medicine, your veterinarian or veterinary oncologist may recommend discontinuing treatment.
Veterinary medicine has also made some recent strides in other treatments, such as immunotherapy or antibody therapy.
Here are the three most common forms of treatment for cancer in dogs.
Performing surgery to physically remove as much of the cancer as possible is usually part of treatment whenever feasible.
Surgery may be the only type of therapy that is recommended, or else it will be performed before or after chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
While chemotherapy is a blanket term for using drugs to combat disease, it can be administered in several ways.
According to Dr. Joanne Intile, DVM, MS, DACVIM, chemotherapy can be administered orally, intravenously (into a vein), topically, subcutaneously (under the skin), intramuscularly (into a muscle), intratumorally (directly into a tumor) or intracavitarily (into a body cavity).
The majority of dogs treated with chemotherapy don’t suffer much in the way of serious side effects. This is because veterinarians do not use the same high doses of medicine as is used for people with cancer.
Dogs may experience these side effects during chemotherapy:
Most dogs will not lose their fur, but some breeds (those with continuously growing haircoats like Poodles) might experience some hair thinning.
Your dog might also have a smaller appetite and experience temporary diarrhea or vomiting—typically mild and short-lived and will occur 24-72 hours after a chemotherapy session.
Bone marrow suppression is another worry with chemotherapy treatments because it can lead to anemia and/or increased risk of infection. But these types of side effects are typically treatable.
The Clinical Oncology Service at the Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania estimates that the chance of “severe side effects … is estimated to be less than 5% of all pets receiving chemotherapy. With proper management, most animals recover uneventfully within a few days.”
Your veterinarian will keep track of your dog’s progress through regular examinations, blood work and discussions with you regarding what you observe at home. They may make changes in the dosage or types of drugs that are used for treatment based on how your dog responds to them.
Depending upon the type of cancer and how it is affecting your dog, your vet may recommend radiation therapy rather than chemotherapy.
“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. Radiation therapy is a localized therapy, like surgery,” says Dr. Rick Chetney Jr., a veterinary oncologist who specializes in radiation treatments to fight cancer. “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.”
Whole- or half-body radiation can be used to treat cancers that are not contained in one location, such as lymphoma.
Animals are given varying levels of sedation for radiation treatments, mainly to keep them still. There’s no direct pain from the radiation treatment itself, although some discomfort, skin problems or fatigue may be associated with its effects.
How Many Radiation Treatments Do Dogs Need?
“A definitive radiation therapy protocol is given once daily—usually with between 16-20 daily treatments—so it takes about three or four weeks,” says Dr. Chetney.
Dr. Chetney explains, “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.”
Depending on your dog’s specific cancer and situation, radiation may be administered less frequently, such as every other day or every third day.
Talk to your veterinarian or veterinary oncologist about your options to make your dog’s therapy protocol practical for you to carry out.
How Much Do Dog Cancer Treatments Generally Cost?
When your dog is diagnosed with cancer, one of the first concerns you may have is the cost. It’s hard to determine a general cost for treatment, because there are many different options and dosages depending on your dog and the type of cancer.
Consulting with your vet or oncologist will certainly help get you a ballpark figure, but they may be hesitant to give you a specific figure since it’s impossible to predict just how your dog will respond to treatment.
They will lay out a treatment plan and proposed rate, but many factors that affect the eventual cost.
“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 can 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,” explains veterinary oncologist Dr. M.J. Hamilton, DVM, DACVIM (O).
If you already have pet insurance, many types cover cancer treatment (most likely partially), but rules concerning preexisting conditions will generally prevent you from getting coverage once your dog has been diagnosed.
List of Specific Costs for Dog Cancer Treatments
According to the National Canine Cancer Foundation, an initial visit to confirm a cancer diagnosis can be upwards of $200.
That doesn’t include any diagnostic tests that may be necessary for diagnosis, including X-rays, blood work and ultrasound examinations. Major surgery to remove a cancerous tumor that’s deep inside the body or that will require reconstruction, can start at $1,500.
Chemotherapy treatments might range from $200-$5,000, depending upon the type and severity of the cancer. Radiation therapy can range from $2,000-$6,000 or higher.
You will also need to factor in additional medications that might be needed—such as pain relievers or antibiotics—which could cost another $30-$50 per month for an indefinite period.
Specialist visit to confirm cancer diagnosis
Pain relievers, antibiotics, etc.
$60-$50 per month
Diet for Dogs With Cancer
According to Dr. Patrick Mahaney of Los Angeles, “It’s crucial that all veterinarians and pet owners be attuned to whole-body health, especially 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.”
In terms of a cancer diet for dogs, keeping your dog on a diet that is easily digestible and contains the right balance of nutrients can help them feel better when undergoing radiation and chemotherapy. This is especially important as many of the milder side effects of treatment relate to the digestive system.
Providing Treatment and Palliative Care for Dogs With Cancer
While a diagnosis of cancer in your dog is by no means a certain death sentence, it’s sure to be a stressful time for you and your dog.
Your veterinarian and veterinary oncologist will work with you to give you options for treatment and help walk you through any difficulties that come with it.
Don’t just assume that you can’t afford certain treatments. There are palliative options that are inexpensive and can give you and your dog more good days together.
Palliative care will help your dog feel like herself for as long as possible by minimizing pain and sometimes slowing the growth of the cancer.
Maintain communication with your veterinarians, as they are your best resource for helping you maintain a good quality of life for your dog.
By: David F. Kramer
Featured Image: iStock.com/ivanastar