Animals with Cancer: Providing Care
By Erik Caplan
It’s a scary fact-cancer is the No. 1 cause of death in dogs, and nearly half of dogs older than 10 die from cancer. Large dogs are susceptible to developing cancer of the bones, and cancerous tumors most often develop in a dog’s leg bones or near joints. Both dogs and cats can develop tumors on or under their skin. Birds also can develop cancerous tumors. Cats can catch a type of virus called Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) that may develop into a form of blood cancer known as leukemia. Twenty percent of cats infected with FeLV develop cancer. Consequently, as a pet sitter, there’s a good chance you’ll eventually encounter a client whose animal has cancer.
Just as in humans, treatment of cancer in pets has advanced rapidly during the past several decades. Animals with cancer may be treated with surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy or with a combination of these options. They may also be given pain medication.
The term cancer is a general one. It refers to any disease where cells divide out of control. For some reason, the genetic code responsible for telling cells when to stop dividing breaks down, and the cells reproduce at high speed until they form a big mass of cancer cells, called a tumor. This tumor can interfere with and damage healthy cells. If they keep growing, the cancer cells can start to spread-or metastasize-to other parts of the body, like the bones or lungs, and the cancer cells can damage them as well.
There are about a hundred specific types of cancer, each one involving different body parts and having its own name. Each type of cancer is its own disease, causing unique problems and responding to different treatments.
Obviously, when faced with the possibility of caring for a pet with cancer, you can take a powerful first step by learning what kind of cancer the animal has, how it spreads, what its survival rates are, and how it is treated. Obviously, the pet’s veterinarian is the most accessible and dependable resource of facts and advice. Don’t be afraid to ask the veterinarian to explain anything you don’t understand. Keep a notebook to jot down questions that occur when you’re away from the office. Ask for handouts and pamphlets, and underline anything you don’t understand to ask about later.
Check the library. It’s an old-fashioned solution, but a good one. Find books on cancer in general, and, of course, look for books about cancer in animals. Ask a librarian to help you look up newspaper or magazine articles in a database. Look in the reference section for information about organizations that deal with animal disease.
Look online. This can be a fabulous resource for finding support groups and getting firsthand information from people who’ve cared for pets with cancer. Be cautious, though, about accepting medical advice you find on the Internet, where you can never be sure of your source’s qualifications.
Veterinarians will perform surgery on a tumor when it can be removed from a pet’s body without damaging other tissue. It is not a viable option if the cancer is large enough to endanger the animal if removed, if the cancer has spread, or if the animal is too weak to survive anesthesia. Care for this animal is much the same as care for any other post-surgery animal.
This is a process in which an animal is given toxic chemicals, usually intravenously, intended to kill the out-of-control, rapidly reproducing cancer cells without damaging the slower dividing, healthy cells. The good news is, animals often respond to chemotherapy better than humans. They usually don’t have the severe side effects like nausea and hair loss that people can experience. However, animals treated with chemotherapy may be lethargic and will require a bit more general patience. In general, most pets receiving chemotherapy experience minimal side effects. Some even seem to have more energy and an improved appetite. Some drugs can cause nausea, vomiting or diarrhea in sensitive pets, but these side effects can typically be prevented. Pets receiving chemotherapy should be able to perform and enjoy all of their normal activities.
In this treatment, high doses of radiation are aimed directly at the tumor to shrink it or arrest its growth. This can be done either with a narrow beam of radiation or with radioactive implants placed next to the tumor. It’s a completely painless procedure, but there are some possible side effects, which may include nausea or general lack of energy. Complementary therapies such as massage, herbal supplements and acupuncture are also available. Often two or more of these techniques will be used in combination to treat an animal.
By: Erik Caplan
NAPPS Fall ’08