What you need to know when your pet is diagnosed with cancer

It’s the news no one wants to hear: the reason your beloved cat or pup has been off his food or uninterested in play. But while a cancer diagnosis may rock your world, it doesn’t necessarily mean the end.

Dr Rod Straw, founder of the Australian Animal Cancer Foundation says, “A cancer diagnosis can be anything from very curable to a more problematic issue. And, with the advances in animal cancer treatment, the number of cases in the former category is increasing. Many of the cancers that were once fatal are now manageable”.

The suite of cancer treatments available for pets is the same as for humans: surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and methods that encourage the patient’s immune system to fight the cancer.

Outcomes for dogs and cats with cancer have dramatically improved, Dr Straw explains. “20 years ago, only 10 per cent of dogs with bone cancer would survive a year or more. Now it’s more like 50 per cent, a fivefold increase. And that’s largely to do with advances in chemotherapy drugs”.

The most common malignant cancer in dogs is called lymphosarcoma, which is identical to non-Hodkin’s lymphoma in people. Skin cancers, some of which are sun-induced, are very common, along with cancers in other organs. According to Dr Straw, the rate of cancer in dogs is the same as in their two-legged friends.

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Cats are built tougher, and will experience cancer two-thirds less frequently than their canine counterparts but, as Dr Straw points out, “they do it well, with cats acquiring more malignant cancers”.

When cancer is diagnosed, it’s not just an emotional blow but can be a financial one too.

Dr Straw, who predominantly treats cancer patients at the Brisbane Veterinary Specialist Centre, says the vet or specialist will initially explore the cancer to find out where it’s located, how big it is, whether it has spread and what effects it is having. This initial “staging” phase will cost between $600 to $1500.

In many cases, straight forward cancers can be treated with surgery, which starts at around $1500. When more involved surgery or a combination of treatments is required, costs increase. For example, a standard “curative” radiation program could cost between $6000 and $8000.

It’s worth noting that pet insurance can recoup 80 per cent of the costs of cancer treatments.

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“Insurance programs are generally very good and create the opportunity for people to put aside the financial aspect of the diagnosis and deal with emotional and practical matters,” says Dr Straw.

Which brings us to the most difficult decision that arises when your beloved pet isn’t doing so well: do you pursue treatment or let them go?

Dr Straw says, “The first question I am asked is, ‘What would you do if this were your dog or cat?’ But I honestly can’t give provide an answer. I don’t know your pet as well as you do, and I don’t know your full circumstances, so all I can do is provide information about what’s fair for the animal.

“From my perspective, it’s all about quality of life. With any treatment, we are asking what is this pet’s life like, is it in pain? What can we expect down the road; can we get this cancer to go away? Are the benefits worth the risks we’re putting the patient through?”

It’s important to know that you are not alone when your pet is diagnosed with cancer. Your vet may be able to refer you to a specialist clinic, and some, like the BVSC, may offer grief counselling services.

What would you do if your pet had cancer? Share your thoughts and stories.