Locally-Owned in Oakdale and St. Paul, Minnesota

Chemotherapy and Quality of Life in Dogs and Cats

“I could never put Spike through chemotherapy.”


“I don’t want Bella to suffer.”


“I’m more focused on his quality of life.”

We often hear statements like these from worried pet owners whose dogs or cats have recently been diagnosed with cancer. There are many different types of cancer, and treatment recommendations can include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, or a combination. Chemotherapy is not indicated for all cancer types, but if it is recommended for your pet, it’s important that you are able to make an informed decision separate from concerns you may have about how humans handle chemotherapy. Truthfully, if veterinary oncologists always made pets as sick as humans often get, we wouldn’t want to treat dogs and cats with chemotherapy either!

The majority (70-80%) of dogs and cats actually handle chemotherapy without major side effects. Just as in humans, we do see stomach upset and decreased blood cell counts, but each patient’s treatment plan is tailored to manage those effects. In fact, a client once jokingly accused our team of not treating her dog because he never skipped a beat after chemotherapy! Treatment adjustments to better regulate ill effects include changing the dose, increasing the time between treatments, switching drugs, and adding additional medications to counteract side effects. Above all else, chemotherapy can be discontinued if a pet is unusually sensitive to the side effects from these drugs, and our Oncology team would fully support that decision.

Owners sometimes decline chemotherapy for other reasons than side effects. Reasons can include:

  • Regular veterinary visits that may be weekly, every other week, or every three weeks.
  • Some pets are very nervous at a vet hospital, no matter how many treats from the Oncology team they receive! For those pets, merely being at the hospital regularly can detract from their quality of life, which is contrary to our goals for our patients!
  • Some chemotherapy drugs are oral, and if your pet doesn’t take medications well, having to do so frequently may also negatively affect his or her quality of life.
  • Cost also comes into play when deciding on treatments, although the cost is variable depending on the drug, dose, and size of the patient. For pet owners without pet insurance, cost can be a big factor in deciding on treatment. (As an aside, I strongly recommend any pet owner consider insurance in order to help minimize the role that cost plays in deciding what is best for your pet, be it cancer treatment or management for any other medical concerns.)

If you are facing a diagnosis of cancer for your pet, I hope this article provides you with useful information about chemotherapy treatment and potential side effects. Declining to pursue chemotherapy for your pet is a completely valid and individual choice; however, the side effects are much less detrimental to our pets than they are to humans. Hopefully, armed with that knowledge, you won’t decline chemotherapy treatment solely out of fear of those side effects.

Above all else, talk to the oncology team about your concerns! We want to give you as much time as possible with your beloved family member, but more importantly, we want it to be good quality time. Our patients frequently go on road trips, hikes in the woods, or get to take their usual cat naps, so they typically can enjoy all their usual activities. While treating cancer is our specialty in the Oncology Service, comfort care and improving quality of life is a part of that every step of the way.

If you are considering an oncology consult for your pet, please contact us today, or ask your family veterinarian for a referral. Appointments can be made by calling (651) 501-3766, or clicking here.

BRIANA KELLER, DVM, DACVIM (Oncology), cHPV, Minnesota veterinary oncologist, Twin Cities veterinary oncologist, Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota, AERC Oncology, veterinary oncology


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