Combating Pet Cancer

Cancer is a scary subject, especially when a loved one has been diagnosed. Because the first reactions and decisions can make a huge impact on treatment options and outcomes, it is important to be prepared and know what questions to ask first.

Dr. Brandan Wustefeld-Janssens, an assistant professor of surgical oncology at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, uses his years of oncology experience to advise pet owners on the early steps of cancer detection and treatment.Dog

In order to get an early diagnosis, a pet with an unusual mass should be taken to a veterinarian as soon as possible. Pet owners should then be willing to do whatever is needed to ensure that a full diagnosis is made.

“Early detection and intervention can be the difference between a cure and a poor outcome, as well as the difference between a short, non-complex procedure or an expensive, extensive treatment protocol,” Wustefeld-Janssens said.

Once the mass is examined, the veterinarian will need to run tests to determine if it is cancerous and, if so, what stage of cancer is present. With fine-needle aspiration, a cheap but very effective test, a hollow needle removes cells from the mass that are then viewed under a microscope to see if the tumor is malignant or benign.

If the mass is determined to be cancerous, the pet owner can begin discussing treatment options with the veterinarian.

“Get as much information as you need to make an informed decision,” Wustefeld-Janssens said. “The most important aspect of all is finding a balance between being aggressive with treatment to increase the chances of a good outcome and maintaining a good quality of life.

“(At the Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital) We have extensive discussions with owners about treatment options and costs that may be associated with those options,” he said.

While small, low-grade tumors may be cured with a minor, low-cost surgery, other tumors may need more extensive treatment plans. Some pets will need a combination of radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery to treat cancer, and the cost can build quickly.

Wustefeld-Janssens recommends that pet owners look into pet insurance or ask about payment plans to make the cost of cancer treatment more manageable.

One of the most important things to remember after a cancer diagnosis is to not lose hope.

“Our goal is always maintenance of a good quality of life so there may be little change to the daily routine, though some pets will be on chronic medication or need minor changes to exercise (regimens),” Wustefeld-Janssens said.

“As a group, we veterinarians are committed to supporting families and their pets through a diagnosis and treatment,” he said. “We have options and there is always something we can do.”

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the web at vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to editor@cvm.tamu.edu.

Pet Cancer Awareness Month

Many of us know someone whose life has been impacted by cancer. Unfortunately, cancer can also occur in our pets. As part of Pet Cancer Awareness Month, Dr. Heather Wilson-Robles, associate professor, and Dr. Brandan Wustefeld-Janssens, a fellowship-trained surgical oncologist at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, discussed everything owners need to know about cancer in pets.

One of the most common types of cancer in pets is skin cancer, Wustefeld-Janssens said. Primary care veterinarians can usually treat cancerous skin tumors without referring the pet to specialty care. However, more serious types of cancer—including tumors that appear in the bone, mouth, glands (such as anal sacs), or lymph nodes—may require surgery, radiation, and/or chemotherapy.

In some situations, Wilson-Robles said a combination of treatments may be necessary to prevent the cancer from relapsing. For example, an animal may undergo surgery to remove a cancerous tumor, but that doesn’t mean the animal is free of cancer cells. The animal may still need chemotherapy to remove remaining cancer cells from the body, which can help prevent the cancer from developing again.

One thing to consider when looking for a cancer treatment is finances. Though pets are often considered family, cancer treatment for our furry friends can get expensive. Wustefeld-Janssens suggested working with your veterinarian to find the most cost-efficient treatment plan.

In addition, Wilson-Robles suggested looking into pet insurance (when you first get your pet) to help cover the cost of cancer treatment. There are also clinical trials you can find at vetcancertrials.org or the American Veterinary Medical Association’s online database. Clinical trials are partially or fully funded programs that determine the effectiveness of a treatment.

“Ultimately, clinical trials are an experimental therapy,” Wilson-Robles said. “If we knew everything about it, we wouldn’t need to do the trials. However, your animal could be getting cutting-edge medicine that they otherwise wouldn’t have access to.”

However, Wilson-Robles added that in some situations, there are no good options for cancer treatment. This may be because the animal is not strong enough to ensure cancer treatment or the cancer is too complicated and dangerous to treat.

“(Instead,) you may consider taking your pet home and keeping him comfortable,” Wilson-Robles said.

This includes providing the pet with any veterinarian-prescribed medications, clean bedding, any comfort items (such as toys), and food and water. If desired, you can even look into hospice care.

You may be wondering, “How can I know if my pet has cancer?” There are signs that may indicate cancer, but these symptoms can also be associated with other diseases and conditions. Report any abnormalities, such as a lump or a bump on the body, unexplained weight loss, limping or lameness, swelling, or bleeding to a veterinarian. The sooner you do this, the better.

“Early intervention is important,” Wustefeld-Janssens said. “If you notice something abnormal, do not wait to show it to your veterinarian; a tumor the size of a grape is a lot easier to treat than one the size of a football.”

Keeping your pet in general good health is the best way to help prevent cancer, Wustefeld-Janssens added. This includes regular exercise, feeding your animal a well-balanced diet, and seeing the veterinarian for regular (at least once-a-year) checkups.

Though a cancer diagnosis can be scary, there are many treatment options available. However, the best treatment is preventative care. Remember to practice healthy habits with your pets and report any abnormalities to your veterinarian in a timely manner.

Pet Talk is a service of the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. Stories can be viewed on the web at vetmed.tamu.edu/pet-talk. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to editor@cvm.tamu.edu.