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

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Owners Weigh Options for Pets with Cancer: Part 1


Pet Column for the week of September 21, 1998


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

Choosing among the options when your pet has cancer is never easy, but it is important to
know that there are options to chose from. Surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, holistic
approaches, and euthanasia are some of the options owners have for their pets. "One
owner may decide to treat, another may say 'I don't want to put my dog through that,' and
another may not have the money to treat," says Dr. Cathy Greenfield, veterinary surgeon at
the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine Teaching Hospital in Urbana.
"There are no right or wrong answers."

Karen Wolfe found out that her 6-year-old greyhound, Forrest, had cancer in October
1997. Her local vet suggested amputating Forrest's leg, but Mrs. Wolfe didn't think that
was a fair option. After much personal research and talking to specialists, she ended up at
the College's teaching hospital, hoping to get a bone graft done to save Forrest's leg. Dr.
Nicole Ehrhart, a veterinary surgical oncologist who specializes in this procedure,
determined that Forrest was not a good candidate for a bone graft based on X rays and
bone scans. She repeated the recommendation for a front leg amputation. "I told her that I
couldn't do that because it would be cruel," Mrs. Wolfe admits.

"Most people are initially very reluctant to do an amputation, but often that is because they
are uninformed," says Dr. Ehrhart. "So I lay out the facts and tell them the alternatives. I
have a picture of a big German shepherd--a front-leg amputee--running out of a lake with a
stick in his mouth. He's a very happy dog. Three-legged dogs really do have good quality of
life."

Cancerous legs can be a chronic source of pain, sometimes causing dogs to drag or gnaw
at the leg. "Before the amputation, he was in constant pain. He'd cry constantly and it broke
my heart," says Mrs. Wolfe. "After I got the facts I talked with the teaching hospital's
medical oncology expert Dr. Barbara Kitchell. She looked me straight in the eye and said,
'He's young. He's healthy. He'll do fine. Take his leg off.' So I said, 'OK, let's do it.' "

Although there is a risk of hemorrhage, amputations are routine surgeries under the hand of
experienced surgeons. "When you remove the front limb, you remove the entire leg from
toes to scapula. In the back limb, we cut the bone at the top of the femur or take the
femur's head out of the hip joint's socket. The procedure in the back limb depends on
where the tumor is on the leg," explains Dr. Ehrhart.

"After the surgery, the dogs are walking the next day 90 percent of the time," she continues.
"Some dogs need to get outside and learn that life is worth living again. We'll get them off
that slick hospital floor and onto the grass and let them see that the birds and squirrels are
still there and the sun is still shining. Then they start feeling a lot better. I'm a big fan of
getting them home as fast as you can,"says Dr. Ehrhart. Adjusting the owner to the
appearance of their dog comes before the ride home, however.

"If an owner is prepped, they do much better," says Dr. Ehrhart. "Before I show the owners
I remind them that it's a large incision, that a lot of hair was shaved, that there's normally a
lot of bruising and swelling, and that's all OK. Sometimes I bring a T-shirt and put it on the
dog to hide the incision so the initial shock of seeing their dog looking very different is dulled
a little bit."

Seeing the incision and the space where
Forrest's leg used to be was an adjustment for
the Wolfes. "When I first saw him I wondered
if I did the right thing," recalls Mrs. Wolfe. "I
looked at him like he was a mutilated animal
and I thought, 'What did I do to this animal?
Was this fair?' "

"Forrest goes up and down stairs just fine. We
go for a mile walk every night and he runs laps
in the backyard. My heart is in my mouth every
time he runs, but my husband says, 'Look, he's having a good time out there. Let him be a
dog. He chases golf carts from inside our backyard fence. He chases squirrels. Every
morning he wakes up and says, 'OK, let's go be a dog.' I've learned so much from Forrest's
attitude after his surgery. It's just incredible."

Mrs. Wolfe does admit that cancer treatment is not for every owner and not for every dog.
"It's really a personal thing. I think everybody has to weigh the odds. It depends on your
financial situation, the temperament of your dog, and your dedication for taking care of the
animal. If you have all three of these things, don't hesitate. Take care of it before it spreads."

Forrest's amputation was complemented with a round of chemotherapy. He is still in
remission. In some cases, amputations can't stop the spread of cancer. Next week we'll
hear about a golden retriever named Charlie whose owners were willing to do everything
possible to keep Charlie healthy, happy, and alive.

For more information about cancer treatments, talk to your local veterinarian.