As veterinarians get better at preventing and treating various diseases and various pet cancers, the pet population is getting older. It’s no longer uncommon for me to encounter 16 or 18-year old dogs and meet cats that are even longer lived than that! I’ve long told my cats that they have to live ’til they are 20. So far so good.

Of course, as the pet population climbs, so does the incidence of organ failure, particularly kidney failure, and the incidence of pet cancer. As a veterinarian who has been practicing for nearly a quarter of a century, I may have a different perspective about cancer than the average pet owner. The news of a pet’s cancer is every bit as devastating to a pet owner now as it was back when I was a pup, but there is perhaps some good news regarding cancer at this time when compared to years before.

First of all, many large cities now have an oncologist at local veterinary specialty centers. These specialists used to be fewer and much harder to find, usually only at veterinary teaching hospitals at universities. That is no longer the case! There are three specialty veterinarians near my small coastal Florida town who are experts at treating cancer. Chemotherapy usually requires mental expertise and radiation therapy requires expensive specialty equipment. How lovely that many folks can potentially now opt for these therapies without having to drive hundreds or thousands of miles.

Next, diagnostics are way better than they used to be, both in availability and in quality. I have an ultrasound in my own clinic that provides significantly better images than what were available even by the best machines even 10 or 20 years ago. For example, when I started practicing, I was working at a big emergency hospital in the Northwest. We were the first stop for the traveling radiologists in Portland. These were top notch radiologists using the best ultrasound equipment available at the time. Their ultrasound was a beauty. They called her ‘Bertha’ because she was quite large. The radiologists would wheel her out of their big van and into the clinics who called for their services. Back then, the technology wasn’t good enough to see a pet’s pancreas unless it was inflamed/enlarged. I’m no radiologist, just a decent general practitioner, but the small ultrasound unit I own for my small animal practice blows away the images the radiologists back then could achieve with ‘Bertha’. And I can easily carry my ultrasound in my arms.

Even X-rays are better quality than previously. My digital X-ray company serviceman came in to calibrate, test and service my X-ray unit just last week. He does this for a living, servicing X-ray machines to keep them in tip-top shape. He mentioned to me that we were getting some “smokin’ images” on our unit. I told him it was because I had some “smokin’ vet techs”! Truly, with the quality of images available now compared to years ago, both with X-ray and ultrasound, we can identify tumors earlier than ever before. If we catch pet cancer early, it is easier to treat! Once it has spread, the prognosis clearly worsens.

Chemo drugs for some cancers are better than in years past too. And sometimes we have targeted medicine depending on the type of cancer that can prevent further occurrence. For example, there is melanoma vaccine for veterinary patients who have had melanomas.

What we do for our pets is likely an extension of what we would choose for ourselves, should we be afflicted with similar disease, and also what we can afford. I would have far fewer qualms about having a portion of me surgically removed or irradiated than having chemo in my body. Nonetheless, the chemo protocols that veterinary oncologists and veterinary internists choose tend to be less aggressive than human oncologists choose for their human patients. If a human opts for chemotherapy, the goal is to live for decades longer and of course have good quality of life long-term. Humans can make the choice of putting themselves through hell in order to achieve a longer life. Our pets don’t get to make this choice. We make the choice for our pets. Some pets do very well on chemo. Some do not. Regardless, veterinary oncologists won’t put a pet through hellacious treatment to achieve success. It wouldn’t be fair.

If a pet comes happily into the vet clinic for a dose of chemo, wagging its tail, then I’m all for pursuing chemotherapy should a family wish to proceed. If you have a pet who quivers and quakes each time it goes to the vet clinic, it may not be the best emotional candidate for chemotherapy. I’m particularly supportive of clients who wish to have cancer surgically removed, particularly if the surgery might be curative. And radiation can be well tolerated by pets, depending on the area being treated. Again, with early detection the odds are vastly improved, regardless of the treatment plan.

Even if you choose to not treat, we have better pain meds and anti-nausea medications than we used to have. Palliative therapy, for appetite and for discomfort, while a pet is in “hospice” is better than in days gone by. Let’s be honest, most folks cannot afford the thousands or more dollars it takes to treat a pet with cancer unless they have pet insurance. Nonetheless, most folks can afford the hundred bucks or so once diagnostics are performed, often at their general practice, to visit with a veterinary oncologist or veterinary internist. Such a consultation can give folks a better idea of prognosis, supportive care available and time left with their darling pet.

Have a question or comment? Then post below! I always enjoy hearing from my readers!


NOTE: Consult your veterinarian first to make sure my recommendations fit your pets special health needs.

Dr . Joi Sutton

Dr . Joi Sutton

Dr. Joi Sutton is a 1993 graduate from Oregon State University. She has practiced both in emergency medicine and general practice. Dr. Sutton has done extensive international volunteer work though Veterinary Ventures, a nonprofit organization that takes teams of veterinarians to undeveloped countries for humane medical care. She also runs a small animal practice in South Florida.
Dr . Joi Sutton