A Balancing ActIn people, the aim of cancer therapy is to cure the patient. This means high doses of drugs, chemo or radiation, and frequent treatments. It is the aggressive nature of therapy that is largely responsible for the side effects, such as hair loss and severe sickness. In dogs, however, there is no reason to achieve, for example, a 30 years remission. Instead, the aim is to slow progression whilst maintaining a good quality of life; in other words having your cake and eating it. This is done by using lower doses of meds, less frequently, which reduces the risk of side effects. As a result side effects and sickness are less severe. Ultimately, treating your dog is about balancing quality and length of life. The veterinarian aims for that sweet spot where deterioration is slowed but therapy doesn’t cause excessive distress.
Options for TreatmentYour veterinarian will thoroughly assess the dog’s condition, to plan which treatment is right for your pet pal. Of these therapies, chemotherapy is the best known, but there are other choices, including surgery, radiotherapy, and new treatments that are coming on-stream.
ChemotherapyChemotherapy works by using drugs that are toxic to rapidly dividing cancer cells. Chemo is a great choice for tackling ‘disseminated’ or widespread cancers, such as lymphoma in dogs, where surgery is not an option. Chemotherapy drugs aren’t ‘cuddly’ and must be treated with respect, even at reduced dosages. For example they can suppress the bone marrow, weaken the immune system and make the dog vulnerable to infection. But again, your veterinarian will monitor response to the drugs, be alert for fever and low white cell counts, and adjust doses as necessary. In addition, there’s now a great anti-vomiting drug, maropitant (TM Cerenia), which eliminates nausea. If even the low dose chemo does upset his stomach, Cerenia can settle it and prevent him from feeling sick.
SurgeryWhen caught early, localized dog tumors can often be surgically removed. ‘Early’ is the key word here because the smaller the tumor the more likely surgery is to completely remove it before any spread. Indeed, for some cancers in dogs, such as Mast Cell Tumors, surgery is the treatment of choice. Successfully removing the whole tumor with wide margins, gives the best chance of a full recovery. Whilst radical surgery may seem daunting, modern medicines can alleviate even severe pain. And once the dog goes home you can monitor dog pain levels and give additional pain relief as needed, to avoid unnecessary distress.
RadiotherapySome dog tumors are too big or in a place (such as the jaw) that makes removal impossible. For these guys radiotherapy may be an option. Radiotherapy uses a highly focused x-ray beam to destroy cancer cells. It has various uses, such as:
- ‘Cleaning’ the site of a previous cancer surgery, to blitz any lingering cancer cells
- Destroy a tumor
- Shrink the size of a large tumor as preparation for surgery
New TreatmentsNew treatments for cancer in dogs appear all the time. Examples include:
- Photodynamic therapy: This uses a combination of light, drugs, and oxygen to target cancer cells
- Cancer vaccine: A new cancer-directed vaccine has the potential to shrink down malignant melanomas and offers hope for some patients.
- Modern Drugs: New classes of drugs, such as the tyrosine kinase inhibitors, can make an impressive difference to dogs with widespread mast cell tumors.