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

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Cancer Care Focuses on Quality of Life
for Pets--and Owners


Pet Column for the week of May 16, 2005

Related information:

Services - Human-Animal Bond

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

When you walk into the Cancer Care Clinic waiting area at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, you see a collage of photos, letters and stories of patients past and present--tributes to the love that owners and caregivers hold for the special pets treated here.

It can be devastating to find out any family member, including a pet, has cancer. Fortunately, with advances in veterinary medicine, veterinary cancer patients can benefit from the same treatments used for humans, including surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy.

Although treatment options are similar, the veterinary approach to cancer is vastly different from that of human oncology. As Dr. Lorin Hillman, veterinary oncology resident at the teaching hospital, explains, "In some cases, human oncologists take a more aggressive approach to cancer treatment. With animals, it is very different. You can't explain to them that you are treating them for cancer. Our goal is to give them a good quality of life."

The oncologists at Illinois work to minimize treatment side effects and the length of hospital stays. "We want our patients to spend time at home with their family, rather than in the hospital," says Dr. Hillman.

With this in mind, veterinarians balance the aggressiveness of treatment with the comfort and quality of life for a pet. Treatment may not always put the cancer into remission, but it can slow the progression of the cancer, extending the life of a patient several months or longer. For a pet whose natural lifespan is about 10 years, for example, 6 months means a lot.

Jenny Rose, a certified veterinary technician (CVT) who works in the oncology ward, explains, "When owners know their pet has limited time, they really enjoy and remember those last, happy months together."

Another major difference between cancer care for humans and animals is the fact that there is no veterinary insurance that will cover the costs for a full course of radiation therapy. This creates some tough decisions for pet owners. Dr. Hillman explains that the oncology team recognizes owners have financial concerns, so they present a full range of treatment options that can be tailored to fit the needs of both the owner and pet.

Nancy George, CVT, says that when owners discover that their pet has cancer, their emotional state is fragile, so in addition to treating the cancer, the oncology staff focuses on the well-being of both patient and owner. "We do as much as we can to get started that first day we see the new patient who has been diagnosed with cancer. We want to give owners all the information and options they need to make the decision that is right for them," she says. The teaching hospital also has a licensed social worker on staff to counsel owners.

If an animal needs daily radiation treatments and the owner lives far away, the pet may need to stay overnight at the hospital. Senior veterinary students and hospital volunteers spend one-on-one time bonding with patients, making sure they are comfortable and happy, and sharing plenty of walks and playtime.

Since many patients may need long-term treatment and multiple visits, the oncology staff develops deep relationships with patients and their owners. Jenny Rose reflects on her experience in the oncology ward: "Of course, it's sad when the time comes for patients we've grown to know and love, but I feel great remembering that we gave them and their families that extra quality time to enjoy together."

For more information about veterinary oncology, visit the Web site of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine at www.acvim.org and click on "Pet Owners & Public."