When Your Pet is Diagnosed with Cancer

Cancer is one of our most common diagnoses. It occurs in dogs and cats of all ages and comes in many guises. But in every case, it evokes a predictable series of emotions and responses.

The word “cancer” implies the inevitability of death. And when it comes to our beloved pets, this implies a heart-wrenching impending separation that always comes too soon. We respond by wanting to know what we can do to prolong our time with our dear companions. We start thinking about how our companion might feel about the potential treatment plan we may select for him. And we need to know the costs and feasibility of all of our treatment options.

Our immediate fact-finding task is impeded by our emotional turmoil. And not being experienced in this area, we find ourselves lacking in the knowledge of what questions to ask to find the most appropriate treatment for our pets. Here are some guidelines to help in those decisions:

  1. Recognize your treatment preferences. Do you have a strong preference for natural treatments or conventional ones?  Are you willing to consider all options?
  2. If you are willing to consider conventional therapies, you will need to know what questions to ask the oncologist (or your veterinarian who may be able to administer those treatments). Here are some questions to consider:
    1. What does this treatment entail as far as number of visits to the vet? In other words, will it work for you or your cat to travel to the vet weekly or more frequently?
    2. How is the treatment administered? With chemotherapy, for example, some treatments are done at home, some as a quick outpatient visit, and some require IV infusions given over a few hours. With radiation therapy, general anesthesia or heavy sedation is required. And of course, surgery is often the treatment of choice, so you would need to know how long your pet is likely to spend in the hospital and what the recovery will entail.
    3. What is the cost of this treatment?
    4. What is the survival time? Are we talking months or years?
    5. What percent of patients actually live that long?
    6. What are the side-effects and what percent of patients experience those?
    7. What is the survival time without treatment?
    8. What can I expect to see happen in my pet if I opt to not treat?
    9. How many patients with my pet’s type of cancer have you treated and how did they do (as far as survival and side-effects)?

Some cancers have excellent responses to conventional therapies. Conversely, just because a treatment exists, it doesn’t mean that it is a desirable one. You will need to weigh the potential for side-effects/complications with cost and with the chances for a good quality of life and satisfactory survival time.

  1. If you are inclined towards more natural therapies, you can likely expect that there are no great studies out there to give you all the information that might be available as in #2 above. With this treatment option, you are relying on the expertise and experience of the veterinarian administering these therapies. Here are some questions to consider:
    1. How does this therapy work? Many natural therapies are based on stimulating the animal’s innate immune system and cancer-fighting responses. Others are non-chemical ways of killing cancer cells.
    2. How is this therapy administered? Some treatments are pills or liquids given orally, others are topical, others are intravenous, and yet others are given rectally.
    3. Will this entail visits to the vet, and if yes, how frequently? You may just need to come in for periodic monitoring, or you may visit two to three times a week for a therapy such as rectal ozone treatments.
    4. What does this cost?
    5. Do you carry the supplements or do I order them myself?
    6. What is your experience with these therapies? Have you treated this type of cancer before? Note that in holistic treatments, unlike conventional therapies, we treat the patient with cancer, not necessarily the type of cancer in the patient. This means that one patient with this type of cancer might respond much better than another- and, similar to responses with conventional therapies, we may not know how any individual patient will respond.
    7. What is the survival time without treatment?
    8. What can I expect to see happen in my pet if I opt to not treat?

Hopefully, these questions will get you started on your path to making the decision that is most appropriate for you and your pet with cancer.