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Chemotherapy for Pets: Common Misconceptions

By Dr. Laci Schaible

When first discussing cancer treatment options with pet parents, many, if not most, immediately dismiss chemotherapy. They mistakenly assume that their pet’s chemotherapy experience will be just like the rough experience that their relative or neighbor had. But this is where they are wrong; chemotherapy in pets is simply not the same as chemotherapy in humans.

Chemotherapy in pets works the same way as it does in people, true. It works by damaging rapidly growing cells and rapidly dividing cancer cells are typically more sensitive to chemotherapy than normally dividing healthy cells. The effective use of chemotherapy is a balance between killing cancer cells and minimizing side effects that arise from killing healthy cells in the patient.

This is where the differences begin. Unlike chemotherapy’s use in people, the use of chemotherapy in pets is often not with curative intents.

I’ll say it again. Our goals for chemotherapy in our pets is most often not the same as they are in human medicine. Most pet parents don’t realize, or can’t seem to believe, that chemotherapy in pets is rarely as rough as it is on people, and that’s because of these different goals.

With humans, the goal with chemotherapy is typically to cure the patient of cancer; this isn’t always the case for our furry friends. Chemotherapy may be used alone or with surgery or radiation therapy, depending on the tumor type, size, and location. Positive responses to chemotherapy range from slowing growth of the cancer to complete remission. Most cancers in pets are not completely cured by chemotherapy and often slowing the growth or partial remission is the goal.

The reasoning here is the chemotherapy protocols for pets are designed to be less intense and brutal on the pet. Less rigorous doses and regimens of chemotherapeutic drugs mean the side effects are generally much less severe on the patients when you have no way of explaining the point of illness and suffering.

Common side effects of chemotherapy in pets are still similar to those seen in human (except hair loss that plagues human patients doesn’t typically affect our pets) but the side effects that develop in most pets are not typically as severe as those seen in people. When a pet does experience those severe side effects, we can evaluate and choose to stop.

In veterinary medicine, chemotherapy protocols have been designed to maximize not only the patients’ life-spans, but more importantly, their quality of life. These protocols are designed to minimize side effects. Side effects can still occur, but these effects can be managed or eliminated by use of medications, adjustment of the chemotherapy protocol, or even discontinuing it altogether.

The decision whether or not to treat cancer is a very personal one. Determining the goal of the treatment is crucial and something that you should be entirely certain that your veterinarian understands and is on board with. Chemotherapy can still be hard on pets, especially pets that are otherwise ill. Fortunately, for healthy pets, chemotherapy can be very effective at keeping cancer from spreading, at least for a limited amount of time, while you come to terms with the diagnosis. At the same time, it can extend your pet’s lifespan and maintain a high quality of life.

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