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Living Well With Cancer

Cancer is, for many pet owners, the scariest of all diagnoses. And while it can be a devastating thing to hear, a diagnosis of cancer does not have to mean the end of life for your pet. Far from it, in fact. In this article learn more about helping your pet to live well with cancer.

What is Cancer?

Simply put, cancer is caused by a small group of normal body cells that start to do things they shouldn't. Sometimes these rogue cells grow and divide to form lumps.

Other times, they produce chemical imbalances in the body that cause problems.


Some grow fast; some barely grow at all. Some can be devastating, while others do very little and cause no harm. It is not a single disease and cancer affects every pet differently.


Cancers that grow slowly or cause no harm we call benign. Cancers that grow fast or move around the body or cause harm in other ways we call malignant.


Why Do Pets Get Cancer?

Pets get cancer for many reasons. Sometimes it is genetics - which is why breeds like Boxers commonly get cancer. Other times it can be due to infections with viruses - warts, for example, are a very benign kind of cancer spread by viruses.


We know that pets that are neutered, fed quality diets, take regular exercise and live in non-smoker homes tend to suffer lower incidences of cancer.


So the life choices you make will have a significant impact on the chance of your pet developing cancer.


What Are The Symptoms of Cancer in Pets?

Common symptoms of cancer in pets are:

  • Weight loss

  • You find a lump where none existed before

  • Lethargy

  • Vomiting

  • Increase in drinking

  • Decreased appetite.


However, these symptoms are very general, and many cancers cannot be detected at all. Cancer tends to occur in senior or geriatric pets over the page of eight years.

What to Do if You Are Concerned About Cancer?

Sometimes pets with cancer are apparent, other times the changes can be more subtle. Regardless, the best advice is to have a vet check on the problem as soon as possible. The most important reason this is true is that many cancers can be cured with early diagnosis. 


A skin cancer, for example, can be removed surgically with minimal fuss if it is identified fast. 


What Will Your Vet Do to Diagnose Cancer?

The first step is always to take a history and perform a physical examination. If your vet is still concerned then we'll do the following:


1.    Collect a blood sample.
2.    Collect a urine sample.
3.    Perform a small aspirate on any lumps that are easily reached. (This is a painless, quick test that involves taking a tiny sample of cells from a lump - no anaesthetic is needed, and it is usually done during a regular consultation).


If after doing these tests your vet is still concerned, then it is normal to take some x-rays and use ultrasound to look at any areas of suspicion. A biopsy will be taken from any suspicious regions to help rule cancer in or out.


Does a Diagnosis of Cancer Mean My Pet Will Die?

That will depend on the type of cancer, but in many cases not. Of course, there are some types of cancer that can cause pets to get sick quickly and require euthanasia. But many pets will live a long and happy life with cancer. Even if it is not removed completely.


Our objective as your vet is to help you, and your pet lives well with cancer. If possible, we'd want this to be cancer free. But if that's not possible, then we have to manage the disease, so your pet maintains excellent quality of life.


Our vets will discuss the treatment options with you after they make a diagnosis. There are many choices available today. 


How to Help Your Pet Live Well With Cancer

The first priority with any pet diagnosed with cancer is to make sure they have a good quality of life. So we take steps to restore this by addressing the primary problems. If we can easily remove the cancer then that may be all that is required.


If, however, your pet has cancer that is cannot be treated surgically, then we will manage the problem medically. Chemotherapy is used in pets, but never as aggressively as in people. Pets tend to do very well with chemotherapy, so it is a great option. 


And while eventually, malignant cancer is likely to become terminal, it is extremely common for pets with cancer to respond well and live a life as if nothing was wrong at all for months and in some cases years.


We usually perform the treatments at Roundwood Vets, but if a cancer case is quite complicated we may make a referral to an oncologist (a pet cancer specialist).


Other important factors to help your pet live well with cancer are pain relief, anti-sickness drugs and supportive nutrition. All of which your vet will take care of when they create your pet's cancer care and support plan.


When Is The Right Time To Say Goodbye To a Pet With Cancer?

Sadly, pets with more serious malignant cancers will eventually decline and need our help to pass peacefully. The hard part can be knowing when is the right time to make this decision. So how will you know when it's the right time? It's one of the toughest questions to answer as a pet owner or a vet.


Our advice is to have a checklist of things they do that help you know if they are happy or not.


We recommend answering the following questions each day and recording the answers:


1.    Did my pet eat and drink enough food and water to maintain a quality life today?
2.    Did my pet do things that he/she enjoys today?
3.    Did my pet exercise?
4.    Did my pet get up and pass normal pee and poop today?
5.    Is my pet's weight stable?
6.    Is my pet comfortable today?


If the answer to most of these questions is yes then mark a calendar with a green cross.

If the answer is no, then mark the calendar with a red cross.


When the red crosses are outnumbering the green then some action is required. Of course, this is simplistic, and if your pet is not eating, drinking or seems in pain each day, then you should seek immediate advice.

There are other aspects to consider as well, from the cost of treatment to how well you can cope emotionally with supporting a pet with cancer.

Your vet is the first port of call to have these conversations. And we are also an option as hospice care providers too.

By doing so, you can help your pet live well with cancer.​

Dr Emma Clark, end of life care veterinarian, with her dogs

Worried your pet may be struggling? Reach out to our team today.

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