If your dog is diagnosed with cancer, you may feel a little bit hopeless and scared. However, dog cancer treatment options have come a long way and they can help extend the quantity and quality of a dog’s life.
While we know that canine cancer treatment can be complicated and very individualized depending on the dog and the stage and type of cancer, there are some common things that you can expect during dog cancer treatments.
Goals of Cancer Treatment for Dogs
The goal of cancer treatment can vary depending on the type and stage of cancer. These goals may include:
Remission. This means that signs of cancer are gone. Remission can be complete or incomplete.
Cure. This is the complete removal of cancer from your dog’s body.
Palliative care. When a cure or remission is not possible, treatment is aimed at controlling pain and improving quality of life as much as possible. Palliative care can include surgery and medications to manage pain and nausea.
Dog Cancer Treatment: Types and What to Expect
Cancer in dogs is typically treated with either surgery, chemotherapy for dogs, radiation, or a combination of these treatments.
Surgery is often used to completely eliminate a cancerous tumor from a dog’s body. This type of treatment typically has the best outcomes if it is successful at removing all the cancer cells, however it can be useful in reducing a tumor’s size before radiation treatment or as a palliative treatment. Whether a dog is a candidate for surgery will depend on the type and location of the cancer and the dog’s overall health.
Cancer surgery in dogs is typically performed by a surgical oncologist, who has special training and skills. For this procedure, dogs are put under anesthesia and recovery time usually takes around two weeks.
Not all surgeries will be able to completely remove or cure all types of cancer in dogs.
Chemotherapy includes giving dogs one or more drugs that can kill cancer cells. The type of drugs prescribed will depend on the type of cancer your dog has. It is often recommended for cancer that has already spread (metastasized), cancer that has a high potential to spread, or cancer that cannot be treated by surgery or radiation.
Chemotherapy drugs for dogs are either given intravenously in a veterinary hospital setting or administered orally at home.
Fortunately, dogs do not suffer from the same side effects of chemotherapy as humans do and usually tolerate the drugs very well.
Radiation therapy for dog cancer involves delivering radiation to specific cancer cells to either kill the cancer cells or destroy DNA in order to stop cancer cell replication. It is usually administered in small doses over multiple treatments and dogs are placed under anesthesia during radiation treatment.
Radiation is usually recommended when surgery isn’t an option. It can also be administered in conjunction with surgery if the surgery cannot remove all the cancerous cells from a dog’s body.
Side effects from radiation treatment are minimal for dogs. However, pet parents may see redness and irritation at the treatment site.
Other Dog Cancer Treatments and Medications
Cancer care for dogs can also include additional medications and nutritional therapy.
Dog Cancer Medications
Sometimes, cancer can make dogs feel pain or it can cause them to lose their appetite. Sometimes, dogs with cancer develop secondary infections that need antibiotics. In any case, there may be times when a dog’s cancer treatment includes additional medications, such as:
- Anti-nausea medication if they are feeling sick.
- Pain medication if they have had surgery or if they have a painful tumor.
- Appetite stimulants if they have a poor appetite.
- Fluid therapy if they are dehydrated.
Nutritional support is also part of cancer treatment for dogs, and it is important to feed your dog the best quality food you can afford. The main goals with nutrition for dogs that have cancer are to improve a dog’s response to cancer therapy and improve quality and quantity of life.
In general, dogs with cancer are recommended to eat a diet that is low in carbohydrates, moderately high in protein, and moderately high in fat.
In addition, dogs with cancer may have special dietary requirements, such as:
- If your dog is losing weight due to cancer (this is called cancer cachexia) or has recently undergone surgery, then it will be important to feed your dog a food that has increased levels of protein and energy to replenish body nutrient storage.
- Most dogs that have been diagnosed with cancer can benefit from eating a diet that is high in omega 3 fatty acids from fish oil.
- If a dog has cancer in their mouth, they may not be able to eat regular food, and should be fed a high quality canned diet.
- If a dog has cancer in their intestinal tract, they may not be able to absorb nutrients very well or they may have vomiting or diarrhea, in which case, they will benefit from being fed a food that is designed to support the gastrointestinal tract.
- Dogs with cancer can benefit from arginine supplementation, which has a positive impact on the immune system.
- Your veterinarian may also prescribe a therapeutic food that is specifically designed to help dogs with cancer.
- In some cases if a dog cannot or won’t eat, a feeding tube can be placed.
Dog Cancer Treatment Cost
Cost of treating cancer is extremely variable and depends on many factors, including:
- The type of cancer diagnosed and whether it is benign or malignant
- The type of treatment needed and whether your dog needs more than one treatment
- What type of diagnostics are required (labwork, X-rays, MRI scans, etc.)
- How often you need to go to the vet for follow-up
- Whether you work with a general practice veterinarian or a veterinary oncologist
- The size of your dog
- Your geographical location
In general, the cost of dog cancer treatment can range from a few hundred dollars to remove a benign skin tumor, to thousands of dollars. Fortunately, there are usually payment options available to finance care, including pet insurance and payment plans.
If you are concerned about the cost of your dog’s cancer treatment, talk to your veterinarian about your options.
Prognosis for Dogs With Cancer
Prognosis for dogs that are diagnosed with cancer also depends on several factors, including:
- The type of cancer and whether the cancer is benign or malignant. Malignant cancer spreads quickly and to other parts of the body and carries a worse prognosis than benign.
- How early the cancer is detected.
- The overall health of your dog.
- The location of the cancer—some areas of the body are harder to treat than others.
- What type of treatment you authorize for your dog.
In general, the prognosis for many types of dog cancer with treatment is favorable. Veterinarians can often help dogs achieve remission or a cure in many instances. In many cases, appropriate cancer treatment can extend the lives of dogs diagnosed with cancer, and those dogs generally enjoy a good quality of life.
Even in dogs that have been diagnosed with a type of cancer that carries a poor prognosis, there are measures that can be taken to help that dog live out their days with maximum comfort and the best quality of life possible.
Your veterinarian will be able to tell you specifically what the life expectancy is for your dog’s type of cancer.
Keeping Dogs With Cancer Comfortable
Dogs with cancer are sometimes uncomfortable or in pain. The best way to know if your dog is in pain is to observe your dog—do you notice any changes in behavior that might be consistent with pain? Teach yourself how to see your dog’s pain, and if you notice it, talk to your vet about pain management options.
Deep, restful sleep is important for dogs that are being treated for cancer, as their body is healing while they sleep. Many dogs with cancer cannot get comfortable. If this is the case, consider investing in an orthopedic dog bed for your dog. It should be thick enough that you can kneel on it without feeling the floor, and made from orthopedic foam.
Some dogs with cancer have trouble getting around. If this is the case, mobility aids can help. Ramps, non-slip rugs, keeping nails trimmed, and in some cases, dog wheelchairs or braces are all available to help your canine companion get around the best that they can.
After Dog Cancer Treatment: What to Look For
Once your dog has started cancer treatment, they should start improving. Signs of improvement include a shrinking tumor, their blood cell count is normalizing, or they are experiencing less pain and more energy. These are all signs that cancer treatment is working.
Remember that dogs do not experience negative side effects with chemotherapy like humans do. Most dogs tolerate cancer treatments very well, and start feeling better pretty quickly. Your veterinarian will be your best resource on how quickly to expect improvement in your dog.
Signs that cancer treatment isn’t working (and reasons to call your vet) include:
- Continued weight loss and appetite
- Vomiting or diarrhea
- Loss of energy
- Swollen potbellied appearance
- Jaundice of skin or eyes
- Hair loss
- Swelling (tumor) that isn’t improving or new swellings/tumors appearing
- Loss of vision or hearing
- Inability to get up
Dogs who are receiving cancer treatments are seen fairly frequently by their veterinarian or oncologist, and they can tell you more specifically what signs to look for that would indicate that there is a problem.
Also, expect that there will be repeat lab work done at follow up exams, and possibly more X-rays or imaging studies to determine whether cancer treatment is working.
Even though getting a cancer diagnosis can feel scary, your veterinarian is there to walk through it every step of the way with you. It can be overwhelming at first, which is why it always helps to enlist empathy and support from your loved ones when dealing with a cancer diagnosis. Utilizing an online community can be very helpful. Don’t forget to care for yourself, as well.