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  Volume No. 18 Issue No. 5 May 2021  

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Dr. Jim Humphries

  Chemotherapy in pets
  By Dr. Jim Humphries

   For most of 2020, I decided we should take a detailed look at some of the most common cancers seen in dogs and cats. It was an important distraction from the insanity that year brought to our homes. Thank God there is no politics in the dog world (just at dog shows).
   Not a week goes by that we don’t have to euthanize 10 to 15 wonderful dogs because of cancer — it is destroying their bodies. So, every day I am reminded of the devastation cancer brings to the relationship we have with our dogs. I’ve lost my last three dogs to cancer, and it was just awful. Among the top-three treatments are surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. I thought we should just take a quick look at chemotherapy.
   Chemotherapy in veterinary medicine is very much like that in human medicine. It is a treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. Chemotherapy may be given by mouth, injection, or infusion or on the skin; depending on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.
   The specific medication (or combination of medications) is chosen by your veterinarian or specialist based on what type of cancer your pet has, as well as their health status. Your veterinarian will monitor the chemotherapy treatment to ensure it is working well and there are minimal side effects.
   Unlike many humans undergoing chemo, most pets do not lose their hair because their coat is not continually growing. That said, there are some breeds of dogs (like poodles and Westies) whose hair does continually grow; those dogs can experience hair thinning or patchy baldness from chemo treatments. Cats may lose their whiskers!
   Interestingly, side effects for dogs are milder and generally last for a shorter period of time than for humans receiving chemotherapy. In fact, 75% to 80% of dogs have no side effects. When we see side effects, it is often loss of appetite, vomiting and diarrhea. Less than 5% will suffer side effects more severely and will need to be taken into the hospital for fluids. The goal of chemotherapy in pets is to preserve the highest quality of life possible. Some cancer treatments are known as “palliative” or decreasing pain and helping quality of life.
   It is important to know that cancer treatment is not a “binding contract.” It is best to let the veterinarian administer one to two doses and see how the pet reacts. Most pet owners are so pleased when their pets have more energy that they continue with treatment.
   Frequency of treatments will depend on your pet’s type of cancer, their overall health, the specific drug; and, of course, your family’s wishes. Most dog and cat chemotherapy treatments are given in intervals, ranging from once a week to once every three weeks.
   The duration of the treatment is also dependent on the type of cancer your pet has; it can last from a few months to a few years. For lymphoma, for example, most standard chemotherapy protocols last between 16 and 24 weeks.
   Remission does not mean that the cancer is gone. It simply means that all clinical signs of the cancer are gone. For example, if your pet has lymphoma, complete remission is achieved when your veterinarian no longer finds enlarged lymph nodes in their body. Continued exams are so important, and recurrence via metastasis can certainly occur. Many cancers have micro-metastasis at the time of diagnosis, so recurrence is common –- just as in humans.
   Do not think cancer is a death sentence. We have options; at Colorado State University, there is a world-renowned cancer center. We have cancer specialist veterinarians here and in Denver. New drugs are literally being used every month with good hope. However, all these great new treatments cost money.
   If you have a breed of dog known to have a high chance of cancer like a Rottweiler, a Bernese mountain dog, a Golden retriever, a German shepherd, a Great Dane, a Lab or a boxer (and others), you are literally gambling with their sweet lives if you do not have pet insurance. Every one of these dogs should come with a health insurance policy. Not many of us can drop from $10,000 to $50,000 on our dog’s cancer treatment. So, you may be facing euthanasia as your only alternative. Pet Insurance will let you freely use the most advanced treatments and maybe save your buddy’s life. My pet insurance paid $51,000 for my last two dogs with cancer; I certainly could not have paid that, so that is how valuable it is.
   Best of luck. I see so much cancer it hurts. It destroys such wonderful relationships. Please examine your dogs every day, get any lump or bump seen immediately, treat anything your veterinarian believes is suspicious. Later, I’ll discuss the best (and real) things you can do to prevent cancer. God bless your sweet dogs and cats, and I pray they are never affected by this killer.

   Dr. Jim Humphries is a veterinarian and owns the largest in-home euthanasia practice for pets in the Colorado Springs area. He also serves as an adjunct professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University. He lives in Falcon with his wife, horses and Great Danes. Visit his website at
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