By Mindy Cohan, VMD
A veterinary general practitioner is often referred to as a “jack of all trades, master of none.” While many veterinarians in general practice possess special interests and skills, they rely upon veterinary board-certified specialists to provide optimal care to patients with complicated medical conditions.
Learning that your pet has cancer is both devastating and overwhelming. Your regular veterinarian is likely the one to convey the diagnosis and, depending on the type of cancer, your pet’s veterinarian may offer treatment options. However, an option that should always be made available is a consultation with a veterinary oncologist. Your pet’s regular veterinarian can facilitate a consultation and collaborate with the oncologist in order to provide your pet with the best care. Here, find six reasons why you should see a veterinary oncologist:
Consulting with a veterinary oncologist is advisable for pet parents wishing to become well-informed regarding their pets’ diagnosis and treatment options. An oncologist can provide detailed information about the biological behavior of cancers, provide facts and statistics with respect to treatment choices and prognosis and discuss the various available surgical and medical options.
Your primary care veterinarian will forward your pet’s medical records including blood tests, pathology reports and any imaging studies (like x-rays, ultrasound, MRI, or CT) to the oncologist. Written and verbal communication between the generalist and specialist is of the utmost importance for continuity of care. Dr. Rebecca Risbon, VMD, DACVIM (Oncology) emphasized this by saying, “I feel that veterinary cancer treatment can only be improved through a collaborative effort between the primary care veterinarian and an oncologist.”
In case of any communication gaps, it is recommended that you bring copies of your pet’s medical records to all appointments. Be sure to notify the oncologist of any other medical conditions for which your pet is being treated.
Upon completing years of training and earning recognition as a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, an oncologist’s focus is solely on the study and treatment of cancer. They receive continuing education about cancer and their knowledge base is also expanded by conferring and collaborating with fellow oncologists. An oncologist’s case load is comprised entirely of cancer patients, resulting in immense experience.
Clinical trials are used to test the efficacy and safety of treatment modalities. These trials evaluate chemotherapy agents, surgical procedures and radiation treatments. They are usually sponsored by universities and specialty clinics and are more familiar and available to oncologists than general practitioners. A veterinary oncologist can recommend available trials for your pet and determine if your pet is a candidate.
While the side effects of animals receiving chemotherapy are not as severe as those associated with human cancer patients, repercussions of treatment can occur. A veterinary oncologist has extensive experience with the common effects of cancer drugs and how to ameliorate them. Oncologists are familiar with the secondary issues following radiation therapy and can provide suggestions for dealing with problems that arise following treatment.
There are many types of cancer that require a surgical procedure or radiation treatment in addition to, or in lieu of, chemotherapy. If your pet has been diagnosed with tumors of the spleen, mammary glands, mouth, nose, lungs, skin, or bones, consulting with a veterinary oncologist and surgeon will result in the best coordinated care. For cancers that are responsive to radiation treatment, a radiation oncologist will become a key team member.
While there are several cancers that general practitioners feel capable and comfortable treating, cancers which are less common or aggressive in nature are best in the care of an experienced oncologist. Cancers such as acute or chronic leukemia, high grade mast cell tumors, urinary bladder tumors, prostate tumors, soft tissue sarcomas, histiocytic sarcomas and bone tumors warrant an oncology consult. Oncologists should also become involved when cancers treated by a primary veterinarian either recur (i.e. soft tissue sarcoma), or come out of remission (i.e. lymphosarcoma).
While receiving a pet’s cancer diagnosis can be very scary, bare in mind that many cancers are treatable. The connotations of chemotherapy for people will often dissuade pet parents from considering an oncology consult. By scheduling an appointment with a veterinary oncologist, you are not obligated to pursue treatment. You will become well informed of all of the available options and have an opportunity to ask questions about their expected cost, risks and benefits. Some questions to pose include:
- What does the treatment plan include (chemotherapy, surgery, radiation) and how long will it last?
- What are the risks and possible side effects?
- What type of chemotherapy is used and how is it administered?
- What is the expected prognosis?
- If radiation is warranted, is further testing needed; how long will my pet be under general anesthesia; how many treatments will be required?
- What is an estimate of the expected cost?
As the pet parent, your animal’s quality of life and well being is a top priority. Rest assured, you will always have a say in your pet’s care.
Want to learn more about the chemotherapy process? Our guide will tell you everything you need to know about chemo and dogs.