The Big “C”: Your Best Friend Has Been Diagnosed With Cancer.


It is the veterinary visit we all dread. Your dog or cat has not been feeling well and you make an appointment with the veterinarian. The veterinarian tells you they are concerned that your pet may have cancer and recommends further diagnostics. You have the first dilemma. Do you have the additional diagnostics performed? What will it change? As an Internal Medicine Veterinary Technician I see this dilemma all too often. My personal experience has taught me that I am more comfortable with any decisions I make when I have more information.

You elect to proceed with the additional testing. Generally the veterinarian will recommend chest radiographs and an ultrasound. Chest radiographs (x-rays) are done to see if there are any masses in the lungs which would indicate metastatic disease (spread of cancer for the original site to the lungs). Ultrasound is an excellent diagnostic tool that is non-invasive. If any abnormalities are noted, the veterinarian will generally recommend aspirates, either of an organ such as the liver or spleen or lymph nodes or a mass. Once the aspirates have been obtained the waiting begins. The aspirates are usually sent to a diagnostic lab for a pathologist to review.

In an ideal situation, the veterinarian will call and tell you that the aspirates were normal and there is no evidence of cancer. However, in all too many cases the opposite is true. You get the devastating phone call that the aspirates came back as cancer. You go numb and wonder what will you do?

Today we have more options than ever in the treatment of cancer in dogs and cats. This does not mean that treatment is the right option for you or your pet. This is a very personal decision and many, many factors may influence your decision. Some of the factors are:

  1. Type of cancer: Despite the many medical breakthroughs some cancers are very aggressive and do not have an effective treatment. Other cancers such as lymphoma can be very responsive to treatment.
  2. Age of your pet: With many cancers such as lymphoma we are seeing young dogs affected. While treatment is not limited to young dogs, some may find that they are less willing to put an older dog or cat through the stress surgery or chemotherapy.
  3. Temperament of your pet: Is your pet fearful or aggressive or are they the life of the party and a trip to the veterinarian’s office is the highlight of their week?  Treatment for any cancer generally involves weekly trips to the clinic for an exam and monitoring blood work. 
  4. Finances: While treatments are more widely available they are not inexpensive. When you add up the cost of the chemotherapy, the recheck exams, weekly blood tests and other medications, the cost of treatment can be a deciding factor.
  5. Availability of treatment: Depending on the type of treatment recommended you may have to travel a long distance frequently or medically board your pet. Most commonly this is done with animals receiving radiation therapy.

While these are not all of the factors you should consider they cover the basics. Everyone has an opinion but the decision is ultimately yours as the owner. Circumstances may change and you may find yourself making a different decision. As an owner of 4 dogs I have come to realize that I cannot treat them all the same. While two of my dogs would treat a weekly trip to the clinic as a holiday, the other two would be stressed and nervous from the moment we walked out the front door of the house. Their reactions to the same circumstances would definitely influence my decision on how to treat them.

The key is to ask as many questions as you need to be sure that you fully understand your options.  A second opinion is never a bad idea, especially if you have reservations.  And a comfortable working relationship with you veterinary team (both primary and specialty care) will always make the process less stressful.

-Mary Meglaughlin, RVT