There are a variety of treatment options available for pets diagnosed with cancer. The following is a general overview of the most common treatment options. The cost, specific schedule, and number of treatments varies depending on the type and location of cancer, so your veterinarian can provide specific details based on your pet’s case.
Surgery is often the first step in cancer treatment, either to remove an entire mass or organ affected by cancer, or to biopsy a tumor to find out what type of cancer is present. If a tumor cannot be completely removed, surgery may still achieve microscopic (non-visible) disease prior to proceeding with other types of therapy.
Chemotherapy is a mainstay of cancer treatment in which injectable or oral medication is administered to have an effect on the entire body. Less commonly, chemotherapy may be administered directly into a tumor, a body cavity, or implanted into tissue in a special substrate such as beads. Chemotherapy is generally administered to prevent or slow down metastasis (spread) of the cancer. Chemotherapy will be administered at variable intervals depending on the drug used, and generally does not require hospitalization, overnight stays, or sedation.
The side effects of chemotherapy in our pets are much less severe than what is typically seen in humans, and patients generally experience an excellent quality of life. If side effects are seen, they are generally related to the intestinal tract and manifest as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and/or loss of appetite. Low white blood cell counts may predispose your pet to infection and bloodwork is monitored to ensure that a low white blood cell count is detected. If white cell counts, specifically neutrophils, are low, antibiotics may be prescribed for a short period of time, or treatment may be delayed by a few days. It is not uncommon to see pets undergoing chemotherapy visit the dog park, swim, boat, go on daily runs or walks, participate in pet therapy, or perform many other of their usual activities!
A localized therapy used for “cleaning up” residual cancer cells at a surgery site or for relieving pain or swelling caused by a tumor, radiation therapy is administered with a large machine referred to as a linear accelerator. Patients are anesthetized for therapy and lie on a table while a revolving “gantry” rotates around them to provide the prescribed dose of radiation. Radiation therapy often involves treatment 5 days a week for 4-5 weeks, depending on the type of tumor being treated.
Radiation therapy known as palliative therapy may be provided as larger doses of radiation administered less frequently, and is used to make patients more comfortable or provide an improved quality of life. Radiation therapy will cause localized side effects to the skin, eyes, or internal organs depending on the area being irradiated, but does not generally cause nausea, vomiting, lethargy, or a low white cell count as chemotherapy does. This type of treatment is not currently offered at UVH, but your pet can be referred for this treatment.
Cancer vaccines are therapeutic rather than preventative, so are only given after a pet is diagnosed with cancer. These vaccines stimulate your pet’s immune system to recognize cancer cells as “foreign” and target them. The most common vaccines at this time include the melanoma vaccine and the lymphoma vaccine, but others are in development. Some vaccines can be developed directly from the tumor tissue from your pet. These vaccines do not cause side effects and are administered in a series to allow the proper immune response to develop.
There are some therapies that are only available in certain parts of the country, but are available as cancer treatments. Stereotactic radiosurgery, strontium therapy and electrochemotherapy are all treatment options that may be feasible for tumors of certain sizes or locations. Your veterinarian can determine if one of these options should be considered for your pet.
A variety of herbal remedies, acupuncture, supplements, essential oils, and other holistic approaches are often combined with more traditional therapies in order to treat the cancer, boost the immune system, or alleviate side effects of treatment. Dr. Beck is also certified in Chinese Herbal Medicine and often prescribes additional herbs or supplements when treating her patients.
A number of novel cancer treatment methods are currently being evaluated in clinical trials all over the country. Your veterinarian can provide you with information regarding trials that your pet may be eligible for, or Dr. Beck can provide this information based on a clinical trials database. Many of these trials provide funding for all or part of the treatment, although travel to specific locations may be required in some cases.
The most important step you can take in treating your pet’s cancer is to become informed of the options that are available to you and your pet for diagnosis and treatment of the disease. Many factors will determine what treatment is best for your pet. Once a decision is made, treatment may be carried out with your veterinarian or a veterinary specialist such as a surgeon or oncologist. Do not hesitate to ask questions of any team member treating your pet, as this will help you make the most informed decision possible for both you and your beloved companion.
We are here for you! We like it when someone has questions! An educated client is an informed client and we can help you understand what is going on with your pet. Please contact Dr. Beck or her nurse Erin at 318-797-5522.