Pet Cancer Treatments: Rumors vs. Reality

November has been designated as National Pet Cancer Awareness Month as a continuing effort to educate pet owners about the prevalence, detection and treatment of pet cancers. Hope VS provides a full spectrum of treatments for pets suffering from cancer including surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.

Getting a diagnosis of cancer in your pet is scary. Our Oncology Team at Hope is armed with 30+ combined years of experience to help guide you and your pet along this new journey and answer all of your questions. Together we will find the best option for you, your family, and your faithful friend. Until then, our Oncology Department has put together some of the most common treatment misconceptions for you to read up on!

Rumor: I’ve heard that chemotherapy will cause significant side effects causing my pet to become sick.

Reality: The majority of pets tolerate chemotherapy very well. Approximately 90% of pets receiving chemotherapy never experience any side effects. 5-10% of pets will experience mild, transient, side effects that resolve on their own after 1-2 days. These side effects include mild stomach upset and soft stool. Rarely, some pets receiving chemotherapy will experience more serious side effects requiring fluids and anti-nausea medication. These more serious side effects are rare and occur in less than 3% of pets receiving treatment. Our goal in veterinary oncology is to not only control the cancer but to also improve the quality of life of the pet. Pets receive a lower dose of chemotherapy compared to people receiving chemotherapy treatments. For this reason, pets tolerate this treatment better than people tolerate chemotherapy. The majority of pet owners agree that chemotherapy treatment helps make their pet feel better.

Rumor: I’ve heard that certain things, such as food, can contribute to the development of cancer.

Reality: Foods are not typically a cause of cancer unless there is evidence of carcinogen contamination. The more probable reasons for the development of cancer are: genetics, environment (i.e. pollution, smoking, etc.), hormonal influence (intact female dogs), compromised immune system, inflammation, and long term use of immunosuppressant medications.

Rumor: I’ve heard that my pet will lose his/her hair while undergoing chemotherapy treatment.

Reality: Complete hair loss (alopecia) is not a typical side effect of chemotherapy for most dogs and cats. Alopecia tends to occur only in certain breeds of dogs, those breeds that have hair rather than fur, for example, Bichon Frise, Poodle, Maltese. Most dog breeds, such as Golden Retriever, Labrador, Shepherds, have fur rather than hair and may experience increase shedding but do not typically experience alopecia. Both dogs and cats may experience loss of whiskers during their treatment. Fortunately alopecia and/or whisker loss does not cause an issue for dogs or cats, these changes are only aesthetic. Once the chemotherapy treatments are completed, the fur and/or whiskers will grow back depending on the timing of the growth cycle of the hair.

Rumor: I will have to isolate my pet from the rest of the family and other pets during his/her cancer treatments to avoid my family from getting exposed.

Reality: You do not have to isolate your pet while they are undergoing chemotherapy treatment, as chemotherapy and radiation treatment are not catching or transmissible through regular contact. We generally recommend standard hygienic practice when cleaning your pet’s eliminations. Use gloves or paper/plastic bag when handling urine/feces. Clean the litter box and/or pick up eliminations in the yard frequently. Always wash your hands after handling pet waste.

Rumor: My pet is too old to handle chemotherapy treatment.

Reality: Age is not a disease! As long as the overall health of the pet enables him/her to receive chemotherapy, then it is ok to proceed with this treatment. Side effects of treatment are typically rare and mild when they occur. The age of the pet does not dictate how he/she is going to tolerate the chemotherapy.

Rumor: My pet will be radioactive following radiation therapy.

Reality: Radiation therapy is similar to an x-ray and will not cause pets, or humans for that matter, to emit radioactive particles. Therefore, your pet does not pose a risk to anybody after he/she receives radiation treatment.

Rumor: I’m afraid that my pet will spend a majority of the time in the hospital receiving treatment and that my own schedule will not enable me to continuously bring my pet for treatments.

Reality: Most chemotherapy treatments that are performed at the hospital are on an out-patient basis, with a majority lasting about 1-2 hours long. Depending on the protocol, injectable treatments may be once a week or once every 2-3 weeks. Some protocols involve the use of chemotherapy pills, which are administered at home, but occasional bloodwork may be warranted which sometimes can be done with your primary care vet. We try to be as accommodating as we can for your schedule. At HopeVS, we are open 6 days a week, generally from 8am-5pm, to offer a wide array of appointment options. We offer drop-offs for any portion of the day at no additional cost. We have 2 other sites (near Allentown, PA and Lancaster, PA) that we practice at that may be nearer to your home. With these availabilities, we hope that it helps people with their schedule and enables them to be able to treat their pet without it impacting their schedule too much.

Rumor: If my pet goes into remission with the first few treatments, then why do we need to continue giving chemotherapy being that he/she is in remission?

Reality: Cancer is generally not a curable disease due to the fact that microscopic cancer cells can still be traveling throughout the body looking for a home. That being said, the chemotherapy is given over a certain timeframe at a designated frequency in efforts to search out those microscopic cancer cells and destroy them. If chemotherapy is stopped prematurely, there may be cancer cells that continue to exist and may in fact take a stronger hold or replicate more quickly. It also gives cancer cells some time to create a resistance to those drugs that were given, which can reduce or eliminate their effectiveness down the road if they are used again.