As a pet owner nothing could be more devastating than hearing the news that your animal has cancer. You feel awful for your pet and you want to make them as comfortable as possible and ensure that they are getting the best treatment available.
Unfortunately, the likelihood of your pet coming down with cancer is higher than it would have been 30 or 40 years ago.
“Pets are living longer because of preventative health care. We're able to diagnose cancers earlier. As a result there is an increased need for better cancer treatments,” says Lisa Troutman of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's veterinary division. She says that cancer is now responsible for almost half of the deaths of pets over the age of 10.
In the last few years the pharmaceutical companies have responded to the growing need for pet medications. They have developed drugs specifically for animals whereas before animals were often given drugs that were developed for humans.
Currently, three drugs are available specifically to treat cancer in dogs. Two have only conditional approval, which means they can stay on the market for up to five years while the company collects data to support a new animal drug application so it can get the full approval. To date, there are no FDA-approved treatments for cancer in cats.
If you want to check out clinical trials and what is available go to the Veterinary Cancer Society's database.
What to do
If you're told your dog has cancer, it's important to talk to your vet just as you would your own physician if you were ill. Here are a few questions you may want to think about and discuss with your vet:
- What types of treatments are available?
- What is the prognosis for the treatments?
- Are there side effects and if so will they make a quality of life difference to my pet?
- What is the cost?
- How long will it take to do the treatments?
You may also want to discuss hospice care and euthanasia. In elderly dogs, just as in elderly humans, treatment can be not only grueling but expensive. You may not want to put your animal through that or may not be able to afford to do so. There is nothing wrong with giving your animal supportive care, what would amount to hospice care in humans, and withholding the full arsenal of modern medicine. If your regular vet won't do agree, go somewhere else.
You may wonder what symptoms to watch for that may indicate cancer, especially in older dogs.
The FDA's Troutman says it very similar to what we see in people -- a lump or a bump a wound that doesn't seem to heal or go away. Look for any kind of swelling or abnormal bleeding.
If any of your dog's normal functions change like their eating habits or you see they are drinking excessively or maybe not at all, those are signs of caution. Are they OK to pee or is it hard for them? Are you seeing runny stools or any pattern of change in bowel habits? Do they seem tired?
These are all concerns to take up with your vet and are good indicators of some type of a problem. As in any situation where health is concerned being as informed as possible will give you a leg up.