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What’s the Treatment for Cancer in Dogs? Is There a Cure?

Treatment for cancer in dogs can be a challenging journey for pet owners, often invoking fear and uncertainty. The mere mention of cancer brings forth images of harsh treatments like chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation, along with concerns about the chances of remission and the possibility of losing our beloved pets.

While diseases like kidney and heart conditions may pose greater treatment challenges and lower survival rates compared to certain types of cancer, the diagnosis of cancer still looms ominously over our furry companions and families.

It’s not uncommon for veterinarians to deliver the news of cancer to dog owners, but it’s essential to recognize that there are numerous treatment options and care approaches available.

Can You Cure Cancer in Dogs?

Is it possible to cure cancer in dogs? In veterinary practice, the primary goal of cancer treatment is to achieve remission rather than aiming for a complete cure. Why? The rationale behind this approach lies in the desire to minimize the adverse effects of treatment on the dogs’ well-being. Veterinarians carefully consider the dosage of treatments and the associated symptoms they may induce.

To attain remission, veterinarians often opt for lower treatment doses. In some instances, these doses may even have the potential to cure the cancer. As part of the treatment protocol for canine cancer, veterinarians prioritize ensuring that dogs do not suffer from adverse effects during the course of treatment.

The decision is guided by the understanding that dogs cannot comprehend the necessity of enduring discomfort in the present for the hope of better days in the future. Thus, the focus remains on maintaining the dog’s quality of life throughout the treatment process.

Dog Cancer Treatment Options

The approach to treating your dog’s cancer will be determined by your veterinarian or veterinary oncologist, taking into account the type of cancer and other individual factors specific to your dog. Treatment options may include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery, or a combination of these methods.

In cases where symptoms associated with chemotherapy or radiation therapy cannot be effectively managed with additional medication, discontinuing treatment might be recommended by your veterinarian or veterinary oncologist.

Recent advancements in veterinary medicine have also introduced new treatment options such as immunotherapy or antibody therapy, offering promising alternatives for managing canine cancer. These innovative treatments complement the traditional approaches and expand the possibilities for effective cancer care in dogs.

Surgery

Surgery plays a crucial role in the treatment of cancer in dogs, aiming to remove as much of the cancerous tissue as possible whenever it is feasible to do so. In some cases, surgery may be the sole recommended form of therapy, while in others, it may be conducted either before or after chemotherapy or radiation therapy as part of a comprehensive treatment plan.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy encompasses the use of drugs to combat diseases, and it can be administered through various methods. According to Dr. Joanne Intile, DVM, MS, DACVIM, chemotherapy can be given orally, intravenously (via a vein), topically, subcutaneously (under the skin), intramuscularly (into a muscle), intratumorally (directly into a tumor), or intracavitarily (into a body cavity).

Most dogs undergoing chemotherapy don’t experience severe side effects because veterinarians use lower medication doses compared to those used in human cancer treatment. Common side effects for dogs during chemotherapy may include mild hair thinning, temporary loss of appetite, and occasional diarrhea or vomiting within 24-72 hours after a chemotherapy session.

Although bone marrow suppression is a concern with chemotherapy, leading to anemia or increased infection risk, these side effects are typically manageable. The Clinical Oncology Service at the Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania estimates that severe side effects occur in less than 5% of pets undergoing chemotherapy, and with proper management, most animals recover within a few days.

Your veterinarian will monitor your dog’s progress through regular examinations, blood work, and discussions with you about observed changes at home. They may adjust the dosage or types of drugs used for treatment based on your dog’s response.

Radiation Therapy

Depending on the nature of the cancer and its impact on your dog, your veterinarian might suggest radiation therapy as an alternative to chemotherapy.

“Chemotherapy is a systemic treatment—once administered, it circulates throughout the body, combating microscopic disease as it spreads to other areas. Radiation therapy, on the other hand, is a localized treatment, similar to surgery,” explains Dr. Rick Chetney Jr., a veterinary oncologist specializing in radiation therapy for cancer. “It’s often recommended for tumors that cannot be surgically removed due to their proximity to vital structures like the heart or brain.”

Whole- or half-body radiation may be utilized to address cancers that have spread beyond a single location, such as lymphoma.

During radiation treatments, animals are typically administered varying levels of sedation to keep them still. While the radiation treatment itself doesn’t cause direct pain, some discomfort, skin issues, or fatigue may result from its effects.

How Many Radiation Treatments Do Dogs Need?

“A standard radiation therapy regimen consists of treatments administered once daily, typically totaling between 16 to 20 sessions over the course of three to four weeks,” explains Dr. Chetney.

He further elaborates, “Each treatment session lasts approximately an hour and a half to two hours, with the majority of the time spent waiting for the patient to become sedated and later recovering from anesthesia. The actual radiation treatment itself typically takes only about 5-10 minutes.”

Depending on the specific type of cancer and the individual circumstances of your dog, radiation therapy may be administered less frequently, such as every other day or every third day.

Discuss with your veterinarian or veterinary oncologist to determine the most suitable treatment protocol for your dog, taking into consideration practicalities and logistics for carrying out the therapy effectively.

How Much Do Dog Cancer Treatments Generally Cost?

When your dog receives a cancer diagnosis, one of your primary concerns is likely the cost of treatment. However, pinpointing a precise cost is challenging due to the variety of treatment options and dosages available, which depend on your dog’s condition and the type of cancer.

Consulting with your veterinarian or oncologist can provide a ballpark estimate, although they might be hesitant to provide a specific figure due to the unpredictable nature of your dog’s response to treatment. They will outline a treatment plan and proposed costs, but several factors influence the final expenses.

Dr. M.J. Hamilton, DVM, DACVIM (O), a veterinary oncologist, explains, “Treatment costs can vary significantly depending on the type of cancer. While some cancers are relatively affordable to treat, others can incur expenses ranging from a few hundred dollars per month to several thousand dollars. Each treatment plan is tailored to the individual pet, considering their condition and the family’s preferences.”

If you have pet insurance, it may cover a portion of the cancer treatment costs. However, preexisting conditions typically disqualify you from coverage once your dog has been diagnosed with cancer.

Diet for Dogs With Cancer

Dr. Patrick Mahaney of Los Angeles emphasizes the importance of whole-body health for pets, particularly when they are diagnosed with cancer and undergoing treatments like surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy. He highlights the need for greater attention to nutrition within the veterinary oncology community.

Maintaining a cancer diet for dogs involves providing easily digestible food that offers the proper balance of nutrients. This dietary approach can help dogs feel better during radiation and chemotherapy, as many of the mild side effects of treatment are related to the digestive system.

Providing Treatment and Palliative Care for Dogs With Cancer

Receiving a cancer diagnosis for your dog can undoubtedly be a stressful and emotional experience. However, it’s essential to understand that it doesn’t necessarily equate to a death sentence for your beloved pet.

Your veterinarian and veterinary oncologist will collaborate with you to explore treatment options and guide you through the challenges that may arise. It’s crucial not to assume that certain treatments are beyond your financial means. There are palliative care options available that are cost-effective and can provide you and your dog with more quality time together.

Palliative care focuses on maintaining your dog’s comfort and quality of life by alleviating pain and, in some cases, slowing the progression of the cancer. Keeping open lines of communication with your veterinarians is key, as they are your primary source of support and guidance in ensuring a good quality of life for your dog throughout the treatment process.

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