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Debunking Pet Cancer Myths

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Cancer. This topic can be sensitive, as well as confusing and frightening. Additionally, there are many misconceptions and misunderstandings about cancer in pets. Back in April 2022, Dr. Keller, one of our Oncology Service’s board-certified veterinary oncologists, joined us on Facebook Live to discuss these common myths and provide an idea of what it’s like to have a pet with cancer. Not only is Dr. Keller an oncologist, she’s also a certified hospice and palliative care veterinarian. And she knows what it’s like to have a pet with cancer – as she lost her very own “heart dog” in Summer 2021 to multiple myeloma. For more in-depth information and more on Dr. Keller’s personal experience, watch the replay of the video below. For a review of the most common cancer myths discussed in the video and a summary of Dr. Keller’s responses, read beneath the video!

Myth: Lumps and bumps, especially in older pets, are almost certainly cancer. It’s better not to know and therefore, not to seek veterinary attention.  

The Truth: Not all lumps and bumps are cancerous. There are benign lumps and bumps, and there are malignant (cancerous) lumps and bumps. The only way to discover if a lump or bump is cancerous or benign is through an examination of the cells. Your veterinarian can collect a sample of cells via a fine needle aspirate or a biopsy. Then, the cells are reviewed microscopically – either by your veterinarian, a pathologist, or both. 

In some cases, lumps and bumps can be safely monitored and will never affect the pet. Others can be treated with assorted options, depending on the final diagnosis. Despite the potential outcome, it’s recommended to have every lump or bump examined so you can make an educated decision as to the next best step for your pet.  

Myth: If my pet had a cancerous lump or bump, I would know! My pet would be acting sick or not eating – there would be something I would notice! 

The Truth: In general, Cancer is what happens when the body’s own cells start dividing out of control. Usually, many factors contribute to that development, but since cancer is the body’s own cells, there may not be a lot of symptoms at first. More aggressive cancers may cause symptoms sooner, but often, how a pet is feeling does not reflect whether a lump or bump is cancerous. There are also internal masses that don’t cause any symptoms and are detected in other ways. Overall, how your pet is feeling doesn’t say anything about whether they have cancer. Which is both good and bad – bad because further testing is needed, but good because if a pet has cancer and feels well, that is an immediate sign you’re not going to lose them right away.  

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Myth: Chemotherapy is the only treatment option for a pet with cancer.  

Truth: Cancer is not one single disease – there are many, many different types. Some cancers respond well to chemotherapy, but some don’t. Depending on your pet’s cancer type, where it is, and other factors, other treatment options (I.e., surgery or radiation therapy) may be better. For pet owners not interested in aggressive treatment, there are palliative care and medical management options. The goal in these cases is to treat clinical signs and maximize quality of life. Ultimately, there are many different options that can be discussed and individualized based on your pet’s cancer, your pet in general, and your goals. 

Myth: Like humans, pets will get sick, lose their hair, and have trouble with chemo. 

Truth: Fortunately, pets do not have the same experience with chemo as humans! Often, the chemotherapy goal with humans is to cure the cancer or extend the patient’s life as much as possible. But for pets, who have shorter lifespans, the primary goal is to give them the best quality of life and the secondary goal is to extend their life. Pets should look and feel good during treatment. If the owner reports that the pet is not feeling well, the chemotherapy protocol is adjusted by modifying the dose of drugs, delaying treatment for a little bit, or changing to a different drug.

Potential side effects in pets include: 

  • Gastrointestinal upset – but all patients are given medications for nausea and diarrhea, and these are adjusted as needed. 
  • Thinning of their hair coat – especially in long coated breeds like Poodle and Doodles. It’s a cosmetic thing, and the pets don’t usually seem to mind.  
  • Lower healthy blood cells which may put the pet at risk of getting an infection. Regular bloodwork helps monitor any blood cell abnormalities. 

While chemotherapy may not be side-effect free, carefully monitoring, preventing, and managing those side effects prevent the chemo from negatively affecting the pet’s quality of life. Multiple clinical studies that surveyed owners of pets on chemotherapy reported that 80-90% of these owners would choose chemo for their pets again. 

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Myth: A cancer diagnosis means immediate euthanasia to prevent suffering.  

Truth: No one wants your pet to suffer, neither you nor your veterinary team, and your pet can still have a good quality of life after a cancer diagnosis. Your veterinary team will help educate you on your pet’s cancer, treatment options, what to expect, and a prognosis so when it is time, you can give your pet the best possible death. 

It can be very emotional to think about your pet’s death, but we recommend considering when it will be time to choose euthanasia before you’re ready to say goodbye. That way, you can make clearer, more rational decisions regarding your pet’s quality of life. We recommend using a tool like these:   

  • Five Favorite Things Rule
    • Make a list of your pet’s five favorite things or pastimes.
      • Example: My cat always lies on this spot in the windowsill. My other cats don’t do that, but I know it’s her favorite spot.
      • Example: My dog’s favorite toy is his moose stuffy – he plays with it the most!
    • When you notice your pet isn’t doing at least three of the five things on your list, it may be time to consider euthanasia. Why three out of five? If we wait until they’re not doing anything on the list, it’s likely that our pet may be experiencing significant suffering. 
  • Quality of Life Scale
    • Use a Quality of Life Scale to assign your pet a number based on a list of categories such as eating, comfort, pain, and so on. Be honest. Calculate the sum and review the recommendations for that number.
    • It’s best to do these scales regularly because most cancers don’t cause a consistent and steady decline. That way, you can differentiate between the first bad day after a great week or a bad day at the bottom of a weeklong steady decline. 

 Myth: My pet will let me know when it is time to consider euthanasia. 

The Truth: Consider that your pet is bonded to you, and they don’t want to leave you. Pets don’t like showing their human when they’re not feeling well. In these situations, you will have the burden of responsibility of making that decision for your pet. It’s like a parent-child relationship, and while it hurts to have to make these tough decisions, it may become necessary to make that call for your pet.  

Know that there’s never a perfect time to say goodbye to your pet. Some clients may think in hindsight that they said goodbye too soon. But just as many (if not more) think they waited too long. If your pet has a disease that is eventually going to make them feel even worse, consider that saying goodbye with their first bad day can be an incredibly loving and selfless thing to do. It’s a way of saying “I will never let you feel any worse than you feel right now.” It’s never wrong to say goodbye. 

When you say goodbye on your own terms, you can let your pet enjoy the best day! For Dr. Keller, one of her favorite memories from her dog’s last day was letting her eat cheeseburgers and pizza! Dr. Keller was glad her dog felt well enough to eat and enjoy a goodbye meal before saying goodbye. 

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If you have questions or concerns about your pet’s lump or bump, cancer, treatment options, or euthanasia, contact your family veterinarian. For those interested in visiting a board-certified veterinary oncologist, ask your family veterinarian for a referral to our Oncology Service: Dr. Keller and Dr. Keepman. If you are concerned about your pet’s condition and cannot wait for an appointment, ask your family veterinarian to contact Dr. Keller or Dr. Keepman to assess your pet’s case. Without examining a pet in-person, our oncologists cannot give advice directly to you, but they are able to consult with your family veterinarian. Learn more about our Oncology Service here 

  More Reading: 

 Content provided by Briana Keller, DVM, DACVIM (Oncology), cHPV.  

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