Jack Russell Terrier Recovery from Chemotherapy

Is Cancer Treatment for Your Dog Worth It?

Most dog owners who truly care about their canine family members will usually do anything to save them. When it comes to cancer, however, tough decisions may need to be made. Clear-cut choices are not always available. And cancer diagnososes can often become complicated.

Most owners feel that cancer treatment for their dog is worth it if it will save their dog’s life. Today’s canine cancer treatments offer many benefits and can truly help your dog despite the cost and the medical interventions your dog may need.

However, just know that treatment may not always be curative and may only offer an extension of your dog’s life.

The two most important questions to ask your veterinarian oncologist: First, how much benefit will my dog get from cancer treatments? Second, how will my dog’s quality of life be impacted? You should also ask about possible alternative options. And, you will want to get an estimate of the costs.

Types of Canine Cancer

As with humans, cancer is a leading cause of canine death. Approximately, one out of four dogs will have cancer at some point in their life. Some of this is due to inbreeding, but even mixed breeds get cancer. Like us, dogs are subject to risk factors such as toxins, unhealthy lifestyles, and, of course, old age. As dog’s age and their immune systems become less robust, dogs are more likely to develop cancer.

Common forms of canine cancer according to the American Kennel Club include:

  • Mast cell tumors
  • Melanoma
  • Lymphoma
  • Osteosarcoma (bone cancer)
  • Hemangiosarcoma
  • Soft-tissue sarcomas

Some of these forms such as hemangiosarcoma, cancer of the blood, are more lethal than others. Additionally, the stage of cancer (how far it has progressed) will be a key factor to survival. Common symptoms according to Cornell University, School of Veterinary Medicine are:

  • Abnormal swellings that persist or continue to grow
  • Sores that do not heal
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetitie
  • Bleeding or discharge from any body opening
  • Offensive odor
  • Difficulty eating or swallowing
  • Hesitation to exercise or loss of stamina
  • Persistent lameness or stiffness
  • Difficulty breathing, urinating, or defecating

Treatments can often help alleviate these symptoms even if full cure is not possible. So, it is always important to find out how your veternarian oncology team can help your dog have a better quality of life regardless of whether or not he can be fully cured.

Purpose of Cancer Treatment for Dogs

The primary reasons to treat your dog’s cancer are to:

  1. Save your dog’s life and cure him
  2. Prolong your dog’s life
  3. Reduce his suffering
  4. Provide comfort care if near death

Cancer can sometimes come without warning when it is already too late for treatment. These are the saddest cases. Tumors or strange growths may pop up overnight revealing a deeper, systemic malignancy that spread undetected. Loving and attentive owners are shocked to learn that their beloved pooch has been struck with a deadly form of cancer. Cancer treatment for their dog in these cases is just not an option.

However, not all forms of cancer lead to death. Many forms of cancer in dogs can be treated if symptoms develop and can be diagnosed early. And, some forms of cancer are more aggressive than others. Certain types of cancer may remain in one part of the canine body. In these cases, the possiblity of removal may be greatly improved. Other forms however, may spread into vulnerable organs or systems complicating recovery.

Each type of cancers has different symptoms and some can be more deadly than others. But any cancer will usually become problematic if left unchecked and untreated. Therefore, your vet will develop a unique plan for your dog’s cancer treatment specific to the type of cancer. There are many great FDA-approved drugs that vets have in their toolbox today.

Key Considerations

First, ask your vet questions until you feel you have a good grasp of your pet’s prognosis. Next, if you do not feel confident with your vets’ opinion, request more tests or get a secondopinionn. Finally, do your homework! Research the type of cancer, the treatment choices, and the outcome statistics. Be as informed as possible before you make important decisions that will impact both you and your beloved canine pal.

Physical Impact on Your Dog When Undergoing Cancer Treatments

The number one consideration will be how your dog will be impacted. Will it save his life? Or, will treatment only prolong his life, and for how long? Two months versus two years may tip the scales in determining whether or not to put your dog through expensive cancer treatments. Options that are usually available include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.

Animal oncologists always stress that quality of life is the most important factor with pets. If a dog can be given a cancer treatment to prolong his life by a few months, but the treatments are painful or severely limit his abilities, it may not be worth it.

Also, the age of your dog will be a factor. If your dog is at the end of his life, cancer treatment may not make a lot of sense. And, he may be less able to bounce back and recover.

Dogs do not know that they have cancer! We cannot explain to our pups that we want them to be alive a little longer, so they will have to endure complicated procedures to keep them alive. Therefore, we may need to let go of our goal to keep them alive as long as possible, if it means subjecting them to poor quality of life with little joy. This is something your vet oncology team can help you with.

If your dog’s cancer has spread significantly, comfort care may be the only option. In this case, your dog may receive low dose chemotherapy, limited radiation, or drugs that provide pain relief and symptom control. This will be done to keep your dog as comfortable as possible during his remaining life.

Emotional and Financial Toll on You When Your Dog Has Cancer Treatments

I recently overheard an oncologist telling a sad dog parent about how long palliative (comfort care) treatments should last. She said that as long as his dog was having more good days than bad, treatments should continue. But when the bad days outweighed the good, and his dog just looked miserable on most days, then euthanasia should be considered. This made me feel very sad, but these are some of the emotional realities pet owners need to face.

For most pet owners who are very attached to their beloved, furry family members, challenging choices about what type of care to provide can tax the soul. Additionally, there will be the worry about how your dog will fare through the cancer treatments. And, from a practical standpoint, you will be adding an additional burden to your schedule with vet appointments and home care for your pooch. Be sure to see my post on How to Keep Your Spirits Up When Your Dog has Cancer.

If you have pet insurance that covers chronic conditions and illness, that will help a lot to pay the vet bills. Cancer treatment for dogs is not cheap! As with humans, it can run into thousands of dollars of expense. If you have pet insurance, that will help a lot. If not, you may have to figure out a way to pay for treatment. Some pet parents have taken out a second mortgage or dipped into their retirement funds to pay for dog cancer treatments. See the Forbes.com/advisor for more information about pet insurance and some plan comparisons. You can also see my post, Everything You Need to Know About Adopting a Rescue Dog for more information about pet insurance.

Our Story

The Diagnosis

When my mixed breed rescue dog Georgia was eight years old, I suddenly noticed one day that she had a funny-looking sac of skin hanging on her rear right leg. At first I thought it was a beneign lipoma as she had another small one on her stomach. But when I took her to her vet, I learned that it may be malginant. Our vet said she feared it was a mast cell tumor, a very common form of skin tumors found in dogs.

I was shocked! How could my sweet little pooch have cancer? Over the next several days I walked around in a daze. I could not imagine losing her or putting her through surgery or other treatments. The poor little thing would have no idea why she would need all of this.

But ultimately I got a grip on myself and focused on scheduling tests and learning as much as I could about mast cell tumors. They aspirated the tumor but it was inconclusive. My vet said she could surgically remove the tumor, and then have the entire tumor tested to determine how aggressive the cancer might be. This might result in a second surgery to remove more tissue pending results.

I did not like the idea of going into surgery without knowing what stage of cancer she might have. My vet was also concerned about an enlarged lymph node near the site of the tumor. Her concern was that it might have already spread into the lymph nodes and possibly the spleen. If that was the case, surgery may not help as the cancer was already too advanced.

More Tests

Fortunately, I had purchased pet insurance when I adopted Georgia and her sister, so that was not a factor I had to weigh in making decisions. I asked if more tests could be done and they suggested a second aspirate procedure. This one was more conclusive. Cancer was confirmed!

My vet then referred me to an oncology surgeon due to the location of the tumor and how much additional “margin” of skin around the tumor would need to be removed. My vet was not comfortable doing surgery of this nature.

More tests were recommended — X-rays and ultrasounds. Additionally, the surgeon referred me to their oncologist to test Georgia’s spleen and liver with fine-needle aspirates. Fortunately, these tests for Georgia were relatively painless. Yet, this was the most difficult point in the process. Waiting for the test results was very unsettling. If the cancer had advanced to these organs, she would not live and surgery would be pointless.

We finally got the test results back. Thankfully, her spleen and liver had not been impacted! Surgery was be scheduled, but she would also need chemotherapy and possibly radiation.

My Dog’s Cancer Treatments

We scheduled Georgia for surgery, just days before this very skilled surgeon was due to be out on maternity leave! The surgery was a success, but left what was called “dirty margins.” This meant that extra tissue (preferably an additional centimeter) around the tumor could not be removed due to the location. Therefore, she would need to have radiation treatment around the area of removal to eradicate any remaining cancer cells.

I was told that without these additional treatments, the chance of recurrence was 80%. With chemotherapy and radiation, the cancer recurrence rate dropped to 7%!

I choose to move ahead with the recommended treatments. Fortunately, there was an alternative to radiation. A treatment called ECT (Electronic Chemotherapy) had been developed and had been proven to work. It was expensive (about $2000 per treatment) but she only needed two. This would be much easier and less painful for my dog. And then, she would not need 18 radiation treatments, which included 4 hour round trips to a distant city for each session.

The ECT treatments were scheduled. The treatments involved low-level electric charges to the area around the incision. It opened up the cancer cell walls which were then zapped with a dose of chemotherapy. She was sedated and the process took most of the day. She did well but her belly and leg were sore from the treatment. Fortunately, the treatment area healed within several days. Georgia was quite the trooper and tolerated the plastic cone that was placed on her head for several days. The cone kept her from licking at her wounds and making them worse.

Small black dog on couch with cone on her head after cancer treatment.
Georgia home from her cancer treatment wearing a cone.

Impact of Treatment

Next were the 6 rounds of chemotherapy once a week. She also had to be on prednisone and Benadryl during the surgery and chemo treatments to help deal with the mast cells in the tumor.

Georgia tolerated the treatments well, even though the prednisone made her very thirsty and hungry. But after we weaned her off, her appetite was normal again The ECT-induced scabs fell off before starting chemo. I gave her a medication called Cerenia for nausea. She did not vomit from the chemo and she did not lose her hair. But she was very tired for at least a day or two afterward.

She actually came through the whole process quite well. Yes, she had days in which she was quite sore after the surgery. She had some soreness from the ECT. And she was tired from the chemotherapy. But she never lost her sweet, happy spirit and she recovered quickly.

In Summary

Black dog after last cancer treatment
Georgia after her final chemotherapy treatment

For me, it was a no-brainer. The oncologist had reassured me that the impact of the chemo would be minimal and she had a very good survival rate. I was also very thankful that I had selected an insurance plan that paid 90% of all costs after a $1000 deductible. Otherwise, I would have paid at least $15,000 out of pocket.

Several weeks after her treatments were done, she was playing tug of war again and play fighting with her sister. So far, her follow-up tests show no signs of cancer returning. So, for us, cancer treatment was truly worth it!

But each case is different. If Georgia had been 12 or 14 years old, she may not have rebounded as well. Or if the tumor had spread to her spleen or liver, surgery would not have been an option.

If your dog has cancer, think first about your dog’s quality of life. Ask questions about the benefit of cancer treatments for your dog. Find out what impact the treatments will have on your dog, and how well he will tolerate them. Figure out how you can pay for treatments. Make sure you feel comfortable with your vet’s opinion.

In most cases, your dog can receive signifiant medical support for cancer. Your vet practioner and oncologist can help you make decisions regarding the best options for your dog.