Making Treatment Decisions for Your Pet

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Carolyn Vachani, RN, MSN, AOCN
The Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Last Modified: August 25, 2006

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The "cancer problem" that many people think of as a human phenomenon also affects the animals that live among us. Roughly half of U.S. households are home to companion animals. Like people, more and more companion animals (i.e. dogs and cats) are living longer due to better quality of life, preventive medical care, and vaccinations. And longer life means an increased chance of developing cancer. A study in the early 1980s indicated that nearly half of dogs that lived past age 10 were likely to die of cancer. Just as most of us can expect to have a personal experience with cancer, whether it affects our friends, relatives, or even ourselves, many of us are likely to encounter this disease through our pets as well.

While veterinarians have been treating and studying cancer for some time, it was just a decade ago that veterinary oncology was approved as a board-certified discipline under the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine. In 1994, radiation oncology was approved as a specialty within this field. This was, at least in part, a response to the increasing prevalence of cancer in animals and to pet owners' desire for treatment options besides euthanasia (putting the animal to sleep). The three standard treatments for cancer in humans: surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy, have been adapted successfully to help animals with cancer. While the goal in treating people is to cure the cancer, treatment for animals focuses on alleviating pain and suffering along with extending life, as long as the quality of that life can be preserved. Dr. Lili Duda puts it this way: "We're not willing to undertake an aggressive treatment that might cure half of our patients, if it is very likely that the treatment will make the other half suffer from serious and even fatal complications." Therefore, treatment is typically much less aggressive than in humans, where the usual goal is curing the cancer.

When your pet is diagnosed with cancer, you may be uncertain about the choices presented to you. Dr. Duda recommends a second opinion from a board-certified veterinary oncologist. This may confirm a chosen course of treatment or open up new options for your pet. How do I find a board certified veterinary oncologist, you ask?

The veterinary Cancer Society has a helpful website, offering resources for pet owners, including a "Find a specialist in your area".

The American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine has a website with a section for pet owners. They are currently adding a resource to find a specialist.


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