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Pet cancer is a serious illness, as it is in people. A diagnosis of cancer in your pet can be devastating, but you can work with your vet to determine the best treatment options for your beloved cat or dog.

In a recent presentation at the annual convention of the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), Dr. Gregory Ogilvie, a veterinarian associated with California Veterinary Specialists, and one of the preeminent veterinary cancer specialists in the country, remarked that, “Cancer is the number one concern in the hearts and minds of our clients when they bring in their pets.”

But as serious an illness as cancer is, recent advances in pet cancer therapy mean that a diagnosis of cancer should no longer be treated as all gloom and doom. With proper treatment, long-term remissions – and even cures – can often be achieved. But whether a cure is achieved or not, for Ogilvie, compassion should be the guiding principle of cancer care in pets.

Compassionate cancer care: The three commandments

Among the many fears of pet owners upon learning that their pet has cancer is that the pet will suffer from severe pain, nausea and vomiting, intestinal distress leading to diarrhea, and drastic weight loss, both from the illness itself as well as its treatment. However, with proper veterinary cancer care, the severity of these side effects can be greatly reduced and sometimes even eliminated. At his AAHA presentation, Ogilvie identified the control of these problems as the “three commandments” of compassionate cancer care in pets.

First commandment: Don’t let them suffer

As far as the treatment of pain is concerned, the good news is that there are now numerous medications available for the effective treatment of cancer pain in animals. For the treatment of mild pain, a large class of drugs called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) is available. These medications relieve pain and reduce inflammation. They include the so-called “COX-2 inhibitors,” which are marketed under various brand names. There are many medications in this group. Some of them – such as peroxicam – have also been shown to have anticancer effects on certain common animal cancers.

If the first-line pain medications do not provide adequate relief from cancer, opiate pain-relievers can be used on your pet. These may be administered by mouth or through a transdermal patch applied directly to the animal’s skin, thereby providing continuous administration of the medication. In severe pain, medications can be administered through an intravenous (IV) line. The point to remember is that whatever your pet’s pain treatment needs may be, there are medications and delivery systems now available to bring relief.

In addition to pain medications, radiation treatment can be used to bring pain relief for certain types of cancers. When used for this purpose, a much lower dose of radiation is required than when the treatment is used to kill the cancer itself. In some cases, one or two such treatments may bring significant relief.

Second commandment: Provide relief from nausea and intestinal distress

Of equal concern to pet owners is the possibility of nausea, vomiting and diarrhea in a pet undergoing cancer treatment. Fortunately, there are now numerous, very effective antinausea medications available, including ondansetron, metaclopramide, firocoxib, and maropitant. Some antinausea medications also stimulate the appetite and thereby help maintain adequate nutrition. Ondansetron is also available as a tablet that may be administered simply by placing it between the animal’s cheek and gum, where it dissolves and is directly absorbed into the bloodstream, eliminating the need for the animal to swallow a pill.

The diarrhea that is sometimes associated with cancer therapy can usually be managed effectively by dietary adjustments and an antidiarrheal medication, such as tylosin or metronidazole. Ask your veterinarian.

Third commandment: Maintain good nutrition

A further concern of owners of pets with cancer is the “wasting away” that is so often associated with the disease. Fortunately, there are a number of strategies that can go a long way toward preventing this from happening in your pet.

Various appetite stimulants, such as megesterol acetate, can be used and are quite effective, especially when combined with an antinausea medication. In addition, your veterinarian may recommend a modified diet that is easier to digest while at the same time providing high quality nutrition. The Web site of Angel Care Cancer Center (directed by Ogilvie) is an excellent source of information on cancer nutrition.

Compassion realized

With sound supportive care, you and your veterinarian can work as a team to substantially enhance your pet’s quality of life during cancer treatment. Cancer therapy is a challenge, but with expert veterinary care and your devotion, fear can give way to hope.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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