Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Pets with Cancer Feel Better with Cancer Therapy

Pet Column for the week of October 7, 2002

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Jennifer Stone
Information Specialist

The word "cancer" conjures up a host of unpleasant images and memories for most people, many of whom have firsthand experience with the disease in themselves or a loved one. Cancer specialists at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana want to dispel the very negative connotations of cancer and let pet owners know that cancer treatment may not only lengthen the life of an animal with cancer but also improve the quality of its life.

Dr. Carlos Souza, a resident in veterinary oncology, understands the reaction that most people have to cancer. "There is no doubt about it; cancer has a bad reputation. But it is really no different from other chronic diseases," says Dr. Souza. "At the teaching hospital we treat many animals for chronic renal failure, which is a chronic progressive disease just like cancer, and yet people do not have the negative reaction to renal disease that they have to cancer."

So why is cancer viewed so differently from other chronic diseases? In human medicine, cancer is treated aggressively, with the goal of reaching a cure. This means that strong, toxic, chemotheraputic drugs are administered at high doses for a long period of time. These drugs are not only toxic to the cancer cells, but also to the person taking the drugs, so most people who receive cancer treatment become ill due to the extreme side effects caused by the drugs.

"These chemotheraputic drugs account for a great deal of the misery experienced by human cancer patients," says Dr. Souza, "but the veterinary approach to treatment is different. While maybe 15 percent of animals do experience unpleasant side effects from the cancer therapy, most don't get sick from treatment at all. In fact, they usually start to feel better after treatment has begun due to a decrease in the amount of cancer in their bodies."

The difference between cancer treatment in animals and humans is the goal of treatment: for animals, the goal is not necessarily to achieve a cure but to help the animal feel better and to extend its life. This is achieved by limiting the dose and intensity of the anti-cancer drugs so that they do not cause the significant side effects usually seen in human patients.

"We also develop combinations of drugs and radiation therapy that is tailored to the treatment of each individual patient in order to keep the animals feeling as good as possible," says Dr. Souza. "We see impressive results in our patients all the time. We often see animals that were previously feeling terrible suddenly start eating, drinking, and playing again as if they never had cancer at all." The treatment not only provides many pets with a happier existence, but also makes pet owners very happy to see their animal feeling better.

The downside of this approach to therapy is that a complete cure for cancer, like most progressive diseases, is sometimes impossible, which means that the pet may eventually have a relapse and succumb to the disease. Meanwhile, however, the animal is able to enjoy life again.

Obviously, cure is the ideal goal of cancer treatment, and pet owners can take an active part in preventing cancer from reaching the point when it is incurable. "A cancer tumor is most metabolically active when it is small," says Dr. Souza. "This is also the period when it is most vulnerable to cancer treatment. Detecting and removing cancer in its early stages is the No. 1 way to give your pet the best chance of achieving a complete cure."

Owners can help prevent advanced cancer by simply looking at their pet regularly. Touch the pet and learn how its skin feels. Look in the pet's mouth and observe way the gums look. Report any swellings or bumps to your veterinarian immediately and have them analyzed. If any are cancerous, have them removed when they are small. Often cancerous lesions that are removed when they are very small do not grow back. As always, have your veterinarian perform a yearly physical exam to make sure the there are no lesions that you may have missed.

If you have any questions about cancer treatment, or your pet has any suspicious lumps or bumps, please contact your local veterinarian.