Gerald S. Post, DVM, MEM, DACVIM (Oncology), ACF Founder & Barbara Cohen, Executive Director, May 1, 2017
Pet Parents who welcome new puppies and kittens into their families likely aren’t thinking that their precious new addition could someday be diagnosed with cancer. Most of us are too busy falling head over heels in love with our new family member to think that far ahead. But statistics show that one in four dogs and one in five cats will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetimes. Those are staggering figures. Animal Cancer Foundation’s goal is to never have a pet or person lost to cancer. However, if your new best furry friend is ever diagnosed with cancer, we encourage you to become an informed decision maker for your pet, to understand the facts about cancer treatment for pets, and to become a supporter of the comparative oncology research that is helping both our pets and people overcome cancer.
Here are a few things you can do now to help prevent cancer in your pet; things you can do before you’re faced with an expensive health situation for your pet; and what to know if your pet is diagnosed with cancer so that you can make informed decisions:
When introducing a new pet into your home, think about how you will pay for a lifetime of veterinary care, including a health issue such as cancer. Consider pet insurance plans that include wellness care and cancer coverage, and compare them against one another. Once you’ve chosen a plan or if you’ve decided not to purchase pet insurance, set up a monthly savings account deposit for pet health care, self-insurance. If you do this, health decisions for your pet should not become financially burdensome for you.
Routine preventive veterinary care visits are one of the most important things you can do for your pet. Just as is the case for people, early diagnosis of health issues like cancer most often lead to better prognosis. You and your veterinarian should take notice of unusual lumps and bumps, changes in appetite and behavior, or odd-smelling breath, as these could all be early warning signs of cancer. Educate your family, your pet-sitter, and the local groomer in knowing the warning signs of pet cancer.
Know that smoking around your pet going is going to affect their health. Just like humans, our pets are subject to cancer caused by second-hand smoke. If you must smoke, step outside to do so. Better yet, quit for both your sakes. Take a walk with your BFF (best furry friend) instead. Studies show obesity is also a risk factor for cancer. Exercise for you both is a win-win.
Should your pet be diagnosed with cancer, ask for a referral to a board-certified veterinary oncologist in your area. If your veterinarian doesn’t know one, you can search for one through either the Veterinary Cancer Society website (www.vetcancersociety.org), or the ACVIM’s Veterinary Specialist Search website. Have your veterinarian send the oncologist all the tests he or she has run on your pet and ask for a copy for yourself. Go for a consult to the veterinary oncologist. He or she will explain in detail the type, stage and grade of your pet’s cancer and discuss all options with you. Don’t be afraid to go for a second opinion; your ability to work with your veterinary provider makes a difference. Keep the lines of communication open between your family, your veterinarian and your veterinary oncologist and work as a team.
Remind yourself and your family that every pet’s response to cancer is different. Many pet cancers are treatable, giving pets both extended life AND great quality of life simultaneously. Don’t listen to myths! Do search for recognized expertise and well-supported scientific information from professionals in the field. A board-certified veterinary oncologist will explain the type, stage and grade of your pet’s disease and provide a prognosis based on tests and findings on examination. He or she will provide a risk-benefit analysis of all treatment options from non-intervention to prophylactic care to using chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy and other more advanced options to treat cancer in your pet. Come prepared with a notebook and pen. DO NOT BE AFRAID TO ASK QUESTIONS! Remember, there is no right or wrong decision in this situation besides the one that is best for you and your pet.
Don’t listen to myths about pet cancer treatment or equate a person’s experience to a pet’s experience. Veterinarians are sworn to preserve both the extent of a pet’s life and the quality of a pet’s life. Because of this, veterinarians use less-toxic doses of cancer-fighting medications. Most often, pets do NOT suffer the same side effects as people do, and if they do, the veterinarian can dispense medication to treat those effects successfully.
When it comes to pet cancer treatment, some cancers are very aggressive and pets succumb quickly. If this happens to your pet and you find yourself grieving or blaming yourself to excess, ask your veterinary professional for referral to a pet grief counselor or support group where you can get help coping with this profound loss.
Ask your veterinary oncologist about the availability of clinical trials for pets, especially if your pet’s particular cancer does not have a good prognosis with standard therapy. Many trials are being conducted at veterinary specialty hospitals within universities and private practices as well. The AVMA has a searchable clinical trials database. If you decide to enroll your pet in a clinical trial, you and your pet will be contributing vital information to help cure pets and people with cancer.
Limit pet’s exposure to known cancer causing toxins, including lawn pesticides, chemical household cleansers, etc. Because pets often lick their paws, they could be ingesting material dangerous to their health.
Never lose hope—many families and their pets with cancer are enjoying more time together to pursue their favorite activities thanks to advances in veterinary cancer treatment.