Hearing your pet has cancer can be devastating, but advances in veterinary oncology are prolonging pet lives and improving their quality of life. In the last several years, veterinarians have made significant progress in better understanding how to approach cancer treatment, and this knowledge helps affected pets have better outcomes. Including a veterinary oncologist in your pet’s medical team can ensure they receive optimal care when navigating a cancer diagnosis.
What is a veterinary oncologist?
A veterinary oncologist is a veterinarian who has extensive training and experience in pet cancer diagnosis and treatment, making them experts in the field. Their training involves:
- Traditional veterinary degree — The individual must complete three to four years in undergraduate studies, as well as four years in veterinary school (about 8 years total).
- American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (ACVIM) — After veterinary school graduation, the veterinarian must complete three to six years of advanced training, including a residency at a veterinary hospital where experts in the field provide advice and guidance.
- Veterinary oncology specialty — After receiving board certification in internal medicine, the veterinarian may seek additional specialty status in veterinary oncology that typically involves an additional three years at an approved oncology residency training program. The veterinarian then must pass an intensive examination before receiving their veterinary oncology credentials.
This 14-17 years of training not only gives veterinary oncologists the knowledge to treat your pet, but the experience also allows them to fully understand the needs of pets and pet owners going through this difficult time. These trained individuals are advocates for you and your pet, and work toward your pet’s recovery and help manage their care so that you are not overwhelmed.
What treatment options do veterinary oncologists provide?
Cancer therapy’s objective is to destroy abnormal cancer cells while sparing normal tissue. The ultimate goal when treating cancer in pets is to extend their life without negatively impacting their life quality. Veterinary oncologists frequently use a multi-modal approach when treating cancer in pets to help provide long-term control, and options include:
- Surgery — Veterinary oncologists have extensive knowledge about tumor biology, and may recommend surgery. Goals include:
- Curing the disease — When the cancerous lesion can be removed completely, surgery is performed as a cure. Histopathology must be performed on the excised tissue to ensure all margins are clean and the cancer hasn’t spread.
- Debulking the tumor — A tumor that is too large for complete removal may be partially removed to improve the efficacy of other treatment modalities.
- Providing palliative effects — In some cases, surgery may improve the pet’s quality of life—for example, removing a large mass that hinders a pet’s mobility, or amputating a pet’s limb to provide pain relief after a pathologic bone fracture.
- Chemotherapy — Chemotherapy uses chemical agents to target cancer cells to slow disease progression. In contrast to humans undergoing chemotherapy, animals typically don’t experience negative side effects. Rather, side effects, which may include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, usually subside in a day or two and can be controlled with medications.
- Radiation — This treatment uses ionizing radiation to damage the DNA in cancer cells, and cause cancer cell death. Radiation can help control the tumor long-term, or relieve pain and other signs in affected pets.
- Gene therapy — This therapy introduces genes into the cancerous cell to cause cell death or slow cancer growth.
- Immunotherapy — Immunotherapy uses the pet’s own immune system to fight the cancer.
What can pet owners do to help?
You may feel helpless when you hear your pet has cancer, but you can take proactive steps to help educate yourself and manage your pet’s care. Recommendations include:
- Be hopeful — Although your pet may experience transient discomfort from therapy, cancer treatment for pets can typically be accomplished without causing major distress, or preventing your pet from enjoying their life.
- Do your research — Educate yourself on your pet’s cancer. Our website has a wealth of information (start here) on a number of different types of cancer diagnoses. Educating yourself will help you understand what your pet is experiencing and what to expect as their treatment progresses.
- Join a support group — Cancer is a common diagnosis in veterinary medicine, and you can reach out for support from other pet owners in similar circumstances.
- Know how to assess your pet’s quality of life (QOL) — The goal of cancer treatment is to prolong your pet’s life without negatively impacting their QOL. Your pet should be able to enjoy the activities that typically bring them pleasure. Several QOL scales, such as the HHHHHMM scale created by a veterinary oncologist, are available to help you accurately measure your pet’s QOL. At your next appointment, ask your oncologist to help you learn how to assess your pet’s QOL. The results will vary like the stock market, some days will be better than others. The goal is to track the ups and downs, over time, a trend will emerge.
- Know how to assess your pet’s pain — An important part of assessing your pet’s QOL involves assessing their pain, which can be difficult since pet’s are excellent at hiding vulnerabilities. To help pet owners with this problem, a hospice and palliative care veterinarian created the BEAP scale which evaluates eight pet behaviors that can indicate pain. When you notice your pet exhibiting signs indicating pain, your veterinary team can employ strategies to alleviate their discomfort. Talk with your oncology team if you have questions.
- Modify your home — Small home modifications can help your pet feel more comfortable. Ideas include:
- Provide ramps or stairs to help your pet access elevated surfaces where they enjoy resting.
- Purchase an orthopedic bed to provide adequate padding so your pet can rest comfortably.
- Keep your house warm since your pet may be more sensitive to the cold when they aren’t feeling well.
- Place food and water bowls and litter boxes in easily accessible areas.
- Practice self care — Ensure you take time to care for yourself. Caring for a pet with cancer can be stressful, and self care is important to manage your stress and stay mentally and physically healthy.
- Spend time with your pet — Don’t let your pet’s diagnosis prevent you from enjoying time with them.
If your pet is diagnosed with cancer, you can work with an Ethos Veterinary Health oncologist to ensure your pet receives the best possible treatment and optimal care.