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Making Pet Cancer Treatment a Personal Decision

By Dr. Laci Schaible

Personalized Pet Cancer Treatment

When pet parents are faced with a diagnosis of cancer in their beloved pets, it’s undoubtedly difficult, if not impossible, to wrap their head around. The decisions that follow this news are taxing, and it is important to realize that different veterinarians may make different recommendations on how to best treat, or not treat, the disease. It is prudent to check with a second veterinarian or a veterinary oncologist to discuss your options and learn what all is available for you and your pet before deciding what is best.

As a veterinarian who has faced these decisions with my own dog, Madison, battling osteosarcoma, an aggressive bone cancer, I found myself scouring through the journals, searching for the latest research, treatment options, and survival statistics. I think it’s only human nature to want to arm ourselves with information about the upcoming battles we are facing; after all, the world we live in is filled with facts and statistics.

But choosing the statistically safest route is not always the right choice for every pet parent. From the very beginning of our battle with Madison’s cancer, we went against the textbook recommendations. According to the experts, a bone biopsy would need to be done to diagnose the tumor with 100% accuracy. I agree. But that isn’t what we did.

As was evident on her x-rays, Madison’s bone was being destroyed by the tumor and was already at risk for fracture. The last thing I wanted was to weaken the bone and increase her chance of breaking her leg. After consulting with many veterinary cancer experts at the University of Pennsylvania’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital who agreed that the chances Madison’s tumor was osteosarcoma were overwhelming, we decided to deviate from the suggested protocol.

While skipping the diagnosis step is obviously not wise or recommended in the vast majority of cases of cancer in pets, I mention it because I want to remind you that you should not feel pressured into a decision or to go down a certain path. Dealing with your pet’s cancer diagnosis should involve a completely personalized treatment plan.

The main concern for our family when deciding upon a course of treatment, and what many veterinarians argue it should be for all pets and their families, is determining what is best for the quality of life of the pet. The chance of a cure may be unlikely because of the type of tumor, its location, or stage of advancement, as it was with Madison. However, these pets may still benefit from palliative treatment to alleviate symptoms and improve the quality of the pet’s remaining life. Palliative treatment in the form of both radiation therapy and chemotherapy is what we chose for Madison.

To engage in the battle with cancer is a personal decision, one that must be customized by every pet owner, pet, and vet. Treating animals with cancer is not appropriate for every pet parent and statistics won’t always help you make the best decision when it comes to YOUR pet’s cancer. Perhaps this is because treating cancer in pets, either for a cure or comfort care, takes a strong commitment on the part of the pet parent, both financially and in time for veterinary visits and heeding to home instructions.

Your veterinarian should be as concerned about the quality of your pet’s life as you are. The goal of the therapy is to keep your pet happy and minimize discomfort. Although some animals may experience fleeting discomfort from therapy, treatment of most pets with cancer can be accomplished without a major decrease in your pet’s enjoyment of life. Just because your pet has been diagnosed with cancer does not mean his life is immediately over. Your commitment to your pet and your veterinarian’s dedication to providing individualized, state-of-the-art care will work together to keep your pet as happy as possible. 

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