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A Veterinary Oncologist Answers All Your Pet Cancer Questions

Cancer is arguably one of the scariest words in the dictionary, and its association with our pets is particularly heart-wrenching. If you have or had a pet with cancer, you are not alone.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), roughly 25% of dogs will at some point in their life develop cancers, and as they get older this risk increases. In fact, about 50% of dogs over the age of 10 years will be diagnosed with cancer. Though we know less about cancer in cats, we do know that they are susceptible to getting cancer, as well.

For more information on cancer in pets—including signs, diagnosis, and treatment plans—we spoke with Dr. Dorothy Jackson Girimonte, a veterinary oncologist at MedVet, Norwalk, Connecticut. In addition to being an incredible wealth of information and a passionate cancer specialist for dogs and cats, she helped treat Rosie, purrch founder Vail Weymann’s dog who was diagnosed with cancer.

Purrch: What is your role as a veterinary oncologist?

Dr. Girimonte: My role is to educate my clients on their fur kids’ cancer diagnosis and provide them treatment options. These options may include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and palliative care. As a team, we work together to formulate a treatment plan that works best for [every pet] and their family.

Can you cure cancer in pets?

Unfortunately, we rarely cure our pet patients’ cancers because we do not use as high of doses of chemotherapy compared to in people. This is because we don't want our fur patients to have severe side effects that would cause us to have to hospitalize them. Instead, our goal is to balance controlling their cancer for as long as possible so they can enjoy a good quality of life. 

What does chemotherapy for pet cancer look like?

Chemotherapy treatments can range from weekly to monthly depending on the protocol. Some of these treatments are given in hospital, while some newer, targeted therapies are oral medications given at home.

When should someone not pursue cancer treatments for pets?

Ultimately, this is a personalized conversation your pet oncologist needs to have with you and your pet. Personally speaking, I have seen cases where I worry that treatment may not work quickly or well enough to help a dog or cat with cancer that already has a poor quality of life. 

We also must consider that some of these treatments have a risk of side effects and therefore may risk making these patients feel worse. In situations where definitive therapy, like chemotherapy, is not the best option for a particular patient, I will discuss palliative (approach aimed at optimizing quality of life) treatment options to try and help them feel better.

How can you tell if your dog or cat has cancer?

Pets, and especially cats, are quite stoic and hide their disease very well. It is not uncommon that we diagnose cancer later in the disease course because of this. Animals also have a much faster metabolism than people, so diseases—including cancer—progress faster.

Signs I recommend monitoring for include lethargy, decreased appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, and any new lumps and bumps on your pet’s body. These are vague signs of pet cancer and do not necessarily mean they are due to an underlying cancer.

Regardless, it is important to have your veterinarian see your cat or dog if they are displaying any of the above symptoms, or if they are behaving differently than usual. We always recommend having your fur kids evaluated sooner rather than later.

What advice do you have for someone who’s pet has been diagnosed with cancer?

My best advice is to pursue a consultation with a medical oncologist, even if you are not sure that you would pursue treatment. Our goal as medical oncologists is to provide information and guidance so you can make the most informed decision, even if that is ultimately to pursue palliative care. There are instances where I have not treated my own fur kids in the past and instead focused on keeping them comfortable.

Whether your pet has cancer or you’re simply eager to monitor their health, check out the purrch app to connect with other pet parents just like you. There you can share pictures or videos of your pets, ask questions, commiserate on the joys and woes of pet parenthood, and even find pets up for adoption.

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