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Before you start to worry, it’s okay – Janice and Leroy are fine! Today’s blog article comes to you from a friend of mine who recently found out that her mother’s dog, a cranky old Chihuahua named Pickles, has cancer. While we were talking about that, my friend said that she had no idea what she’d do if her dog, a little mixed breed dog with the most adorable bandit mask (named Jesse James, fittingly), got cancer. And naturally, that got Ash’s wheels turning.
So you’ve literally just left the vet and you’re driving your dog home. You’ve just been told that your best friend has cancer – a scary word that as humans, we seem to fear as an immediate death sentence. The very first thing you can do for both yourself and your dog is to not panic. The fact is that canine cancer isn’t quite the same as cancer in humans, and comes in varying degrees of seriousness. And if your dog senses a lot of anxiety coming off you, he’ll be panicked. So first: stay calm.
The next thing you can do is actually two things. You need to make a plan, but it needs to include two considerations. First, you need to make a plan for your dog. This means that you’ll need to start educating yourself on the options, so you can decide what you’re going to do. Second, you need to make a plan for yourself. Chances are you’re going to get sad or anxious at some point during this process, so make sure you’ve got a support system outside of your dog. Whether it’s your spouse, best friend, parent, or dog-friendly counselor or pastor, you can find someone to talk to when the worry starts to build.
That’s it! Just three quick steps will get you started. Don’t panic; start educating yourself on the options so you can make a plan; and find some support. This is the best possible start to this journey you’re about to take with your dog.
There’s one more thing you can do if you like, and it’s something that many people do: get a second opinion. While it’s rare that a vet you trust would be wrong, it doesn’t hurt if it makes you feel more confident moving forward.
If you were blindsided by this diagnosis, you may not have been able to get out any questions at the vet. Maybe your mind was racing and you just blurted out things that didn’t really help. When you’re feeling calmer and you’re ready to start making a plan for your dog, you’ll want to ask a lot of questions of your vet. If you’ve never been around a dog with cancer before, you might not know what to ask. Here are some good questions to start with:
These questions can help you formulate your plan. Once you know which treatment options are going to suit your life and work best for your dog, you can work out with your vet a timeline for getting started. You’ll know what you will need to do on a daily basis to keep your pet comfortable and healthy, and how to monitor them for changes. You’ll also have a better idea of what to expect in all scenarios.
For canine cancer, there are typically three main options: chemotherapy medications; radiation treatments; and surgery to remove the cancerous tissue. These may be used in combination or alone. Some veterinarians have had luck with other types of antibody medications, but these aren’t as popular as the first three. Which type of treatment your dog gets will depend entirely on what kind of cancer they have, how serious it is, and what their overall health is like. Surgery is one of the more preferred methods because it doesn’t impact the dog’s overall health as much as medications and radiation. Surgery is typically a one-time thing that takes place in the vet’s office. When you pick your dog up after the recovery, they’ll hopefully be tumor-free.
Chemotherapy medications come in a variety of forms. You may have to give your dog a pill or inject the medicine into them. A vet may also prefer to inject this medication directly into the tumor, or to insert it into a body cavity depending on where the cancer is. Most dogs who have chemo don’t have the same types of side effects as humans who have chemo. For example, you aren’t likely to see your dog going totally bald. And chemotherapy treatment for dogs can take a very short time to treat the cancer.
Radiation therapy for dogs is usually a daily treatment given for around two to three weeks. For this, you’ll need to take your dog to a specialist for about a two-hour treatment every day during this time. This does involve sedating the dog to keep them still, and while there aren’t many side effects from the radiation itself, the sedation may be a problem for some dogs who have sensitive systems.
One thing most people want to know right away is how much the treatments are going to cost so they can choose accordingly. But the problem is that it’s impossible to even estimate without knowing what type of cancer and how advanced it is. Steve wouldn’t even give me a ballpark, and my research didn’t turn up anything conclusive. The best I can do is to tell you that I’ve seen chemotherapy estimates for a dog as low as $200, and radiation therapy estimates as high as $6,000. So clearly, the range of costs will be varied.
For some owners, pursuing treatments is not the best option. Let’s say that your dog is like Pickles – old, rather set in his ways, and not really fond of other people. He’s at the end of his natural life, and his owner doesn’t want to put him through the stress of going to tons of vet appointments. She’d rather spend the rest of her time with him enjoying his company and spoiling him rotten. And that’s a valid choice for many owners.
So if this is your choice, let’s talk about what you can do to make your dog’s life great till the end, and then we’ll discuss euthanasia.
One of the things that you may have to consider is euthanizing your dog if the pain or symptoms get too difficult for the dog to handle. The truth is that no one can tell you when is the best time to euthanize your pet. The vet may be able to tell you at some point that your dog is really suffering, and that euthanizing would be the most humane behavior; but it’s still up to you when to make that decision.
Remember that if you choose not to make this decision, that’s okay too. It’s a very personal choice that no one should judge you for. You know your dog better than anyone, so who is better to determine when he’s ready to go? Be sure to involve your whole family in this decision if you live with others, even the children. It will help everyone to process the action better if you decide together.
While we ended this article on a bit of a dark note, I do want to point out that cancer diagnoses for dogs really aren’t as hopeless as you may think. Treatments are typically successful, and while it may cost you in time and money, there’s a great chance that your buddy could be totally cured from his cancer within just a few months or less.
Just remember that when you first get that diagnosis, you should always start with a plan for yourself as well. Be sure you’ve got someone to talk to, or some help getting your dog to and from appointments, whatever you need. That support will help you focus on your dog’s wellbeing, so that they can focus on getting better. And that’s what everyone wants.
While I haven’t experienced this with any of my dogs, I know that statistically, there’s a good chance that I will someday. I can’t say that I know exactly what I plan to do then, but it’s comforting to know that there is plenty of hope and many clearly defined treatment plans to follow. I hope this article has given you a bit more hope about what you can do, and a guideline for how to get started, when your dog has been diagnosed with cancer.