National Pet Cancer Awareness Month: Insights From a Veterinary Oncologist

November 23, 2020

Brooke Fowler
DVM, MS, DACVIM Medical Oncology
Aspen Meadow Veterinary Specialists
Longmont, CO

A cancer diagnosis for your best friend may seem like devastating news, but veterinary oncology has come a long way, and pets with cancer can now often be helped. Advances made in human cancer diagnosis and therapy are often adopted by veterinary medicine and used in pets.

Many of our NVA Compassion-First hospitals have a dedicated oncology team to guide clients and their pets along their cancer journey, using the most cutting-edge diagnostics and therapies. In honor of National Pet Cancer Awareness Month, we have enlisted the help of Aspen Meadow Veterinary Specialist’s board-certified veterinary oncologist, Dr. Brooke Fowler, who also serves on the NVA Compassion-First Specialty Advisory Board, to answer some pet owners’ questions about cancer and veterinary oncology.

What are common cancer signs I should watch for in my pet?
As a pet owner, you are likely concerned about cancer, and knowing what to watch for, and seeking advice quickly, can help your veterinarian make a diagnosis earlier, when treatment can be more successful. Common cancer signs include:

  • Lethargy
  • Decreased appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Attitude changes
  • Mobility problems
  • A mass or abnormal growth, especially one that grows or changes suddenly

Dr. Fowler emphasizes the importance of your pet being evaluated if you think something is off. “Trust your gut,” she says. “You live with your dog or cat, whereas your veterinarian knows them for only small stints. If you think something may be wrong, your veterinarian should hear you out and evaluate your pet.”

What cancer types are common in pets?
Pets can develop cancer of any body organ, but Dr. Fowler most commonly diagnoses:

  • Lymphoma
  • Hemangiosarcoma
  • Transitional cell carcinoma (i.e., bladder cancer)
  • Mast cell tumors
  • Anal gland tumors

When should my pet see a veterinary oncologist?
Although your family veterinarian can treat many of your pet’s problems, cancer treatment often becomes complicated and requires a veterinary specialist’s expertise and experience. If your family veterinarian suspects your pet has cancer, it is never too early to seek a veterinary oncologist’s help. “If your primary care veterinarian is concerned that cancer is a likely differential, you may want to seek an oncologist’s help to make the diagnosis as seamless as possible,” Fowler says. “Oncologists are often aware of less invasive diagnostic tests, such as bladder antigen testing, or molecular diagnostics, which allow us to skip other tests, and get straight to the answer.”

Seeing a veterinary oncologist does not mean that you need to pursue extensive diagnostics and treatments, if that is not your wish. Fowler goes on to say, “Our oncologists will never pressure you into treatment, but will discuss all options, and consider the tests they choose, your treatment goals, and your pocketbook. My role is to educate people so they can make good decisions for their beloved pets. If your pet’s cancer is untreatable, there are often palliative and comfort care options that can be creatively considered, and an oncologist can help you make decisions regarding hospice care. My role is also to encourage quality of life over quantity, and to help people feel complete if they ultimately lose their pet to cancer. Never underestimate the power of having a team to support you, especially during hard times.”

How will my pet’s cancer be treated?
The treatment prescribed for your pet will depend on their cancer type, location, and severity. Some cancers are localized to a single area, and can be surgically removed. For cancers that are not restricted to a tumor, cannot be completely excised, or may have metastasized (i.e., spread), other treatments may be available, including:

  • Chemotherapy
  • Electrochemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Stereotactic radiosurgery
  • Immunotherapy
  • Adoptive cell therapy

Dr. Fowler says, “Once a diagnosis is established, we can delve into which treatments will be most appropriate, given the client’s financial constraints and treatment goals, and the prognosis for each therapy.”

How is veterinary oncology different from human oncology?
Although veterinary oncology benefits from advances in human cancer treatment, they have a number of differences, including:

  • Fewer side effects — Human chemotherapy treatments often cause significant side effects, including severe nausea, immunosuppression, weakness, and hair loss. Veterinary chemotherapy does not use medication doses high enough to cause these effects, and pets typically handle treatments remarkably well.
  • Better mental outlook — Pets undergoing cancer therapy do not attach emotion to their condition. “Our pets are amazing examples of how to live our lives,” Fowler says. “One of the things we value most about our pets is their ability to live in the moment. They don’t stop to wallow, or feel sad that they have a scar, or one less eye. They know only how today will be. ‘Today I will steal that turkey from the counter. Today I will catch that annoying squirrel. Today I will eat as many goose droppings as I can before my person catches me … and then I will sneak a lick on their mouth.’”
  • A focus on your pet’s quality of life — Instead of focusing on a cure, veterinary oncology focuses on making your pet’s remaining time as fulfilling as possible. Fowler says, “Veterinary oncology is all about quality of life. Today is the best day we can give your dog or cat. That is what we strive for at NVA Compassion-First, and we hold that bar incredibly high when it comes to treating your pet.

If your family veterinarian suspects that your pet may have cancer, contact your local NVA Compassion-First emergency and specialty hospital to discuss treatment options that can offer your companion more time, and a better quality of life.