By: Dr. Corynn Johnson
“I just don’t want to put him through that.”
This is the most common response we as veterinarians hear when discussing chemotherapy as a cancer treatment option for pets. For most pet owners, their only previous exposure to chemotherapy has been in the treatment of a human loved one’s cancer. This conjures up memories of hair loss and headscarves, intractable vomiting, and frequent trips to the hospital for infections or pain management.
So when Fido is diagnosed with lymphoma and chemotherapy is presented as a treatment option, many clients have an understandable gut response and reply, “I just don’t want to put him through that.” Why prolong a pet’s suffering when we know they’ve been diagnosed with a terminal disease?
It’s important to understand that the goals of chemotherapy in dogs and cats are very, very different from those in human medicine. In people, we seek to cure where possible and to prolong life when it’s not. In animals, our goal as veterinarians is to make your pet feel better. We strive to increase Fido’s quality of life. So when a client asks for, “Just something to make her feel better, doc.” That’s exactly what chemotherapy is.
In many cases, chemotherapy allows pets to return to the normal daily activities they enjoyed before becoming sick. Appetite resurfaces, energy returns, and pain often subsides. As a consequence, pets often do indeed live longer lives than they would without chemotherapy, but quantity of days is not the goal. Quality is the goal.
Pets typically do not experience the same side effects as humans when undergoing chemotherapy. In veterinary medicine, we use different drugs and much lower doses than physicians use in humans. Dogs and cats do not lose their hair (though it may grow more slowly), and they rarely experience the nausea and vomiting that’s so common in people. Additionally, pets only undergo simple blood tests and occasional injections; they do not require central lines or even overnight hospital stays in most cases.
We see the majority of our chemo patients on the same day each week, and the pet stays with us for a few hours in the morning before going home that afternoon. While some chemo drugs are given by injection, many are oral and some can even be given by pet owners at home. In addition to chemo drugs, pets with cancer often receive medications to ease any discomfort from pain or nausea. Again, the goal is to make your pet feel the best he can.
The decision to pursue chemotherapy for a pet with cancer can be a very personal and complicated decision. If you are unsure whether chemotherapy is the right path for your furry family member, ask your primary care veterinarian for a referral to a Specialist who performs chemotherapy. Simply scheduling a consultation to discuss your pet’s case and your own reservations can help you easily decide one way or the other.