Has Chemotherapy Treatment Gone to the Dogs?

By Gabriella Sfilig oi, DVM, DACVIM (Oncology)
Wheat Ridge Animal Hospital

Over the past few decades, the quality of medical care for dogs has consistently improved, which has resulted in pets living longer and health ­ier lives. Unfortunately, as more pets reach older age, the diagnosis of cancer has also become more common. It has been estimated that ap ­proximately 10 percent of dogs in the US will be di ­agnosed with cancer each year. Thankfully, new ad ­vances in veterinary cancer treatments, paralleling those in the human field, are being made. Many canine cancers diagnosed today are treatable or even curable with ap ­propriate therapy. Treatment options for pets with cancer can include surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. A combination of therapies may be re ­quired to achieve the best results.  

Many pet owners are surprised to learn that chemotherapy is a treatment op ­tion for animals. Most people have pre-conceived notions of what chemo ­therapy treatment is like due to a past experience with a person in their life. However, chemotherapy in dogs is very different than chemotherapy treatment in humans. The reason for this is simple: the goals are different.

In general, veterinary oncologists be ­lieve that preserving an excellent quality of life should always be the top priority when making cancer treatment recom ­mendations. Because pets cannot con ­sent to their treatment, it would be unfair to subject pets to treatments with severe side-effects. In order to accom ­plish this goal, pets on chemotherapy are often treated relatively less aggres ­sively than humans with the same dis ­ease. Other goals of therapy will vary based on the disease being treated and the level of spread at the time of diag ­nosis. For example, goals for treatment may include achieving a clinical remis ­sion (no detectable cancer in the body), slowing cancer progression, preventing cancer spread, or improving patient comfort. Typically, dogs tolerate che ­motherapy very well.  

Of course, no treatment in medicine can be guaranteed to be free of side ef ­fects. Chemotherapy consists of admin ­istering medications that attack rapidly dividing cells, including both cancerous and normal cells like white blood cells, cells of the intestines, and sometimes hair follicles. Although uncommon, side effects such as stomach upset or infec ­tion are seen in some patients. Hair loss from chemotherapy is much less com ­mon in dogs than in humans. Dogs may lose their whiskers and hair regrowth over previously shaved areas will often be slow, but other loss is usually minimal. Dogs with continuously growing hair, such as Poodles, may experience variable degrees of hair loss with treatment. Overall, less than five percent of dogs on chemotherapy will experience side effects serious enough to warrant hospitalization. Most pets have a good quality of life during treatment with little alteration in their daily routines.  

No pet owner wants to hear a diagnosis of cancer. However, with new treatment options there is reason to be hopeful. Become your pet's advocate and learn all that you can about the diagnosis and your pet's particular situation. A wide variety of treatment options may be available and there is no one right or wrong way to treat a particular dis ­ease. It is important to be informed and to keep an open mind with respect to treatment options, like chemotherapy. With the help of your veterinarian or veterinary oncologist, treatments like chemotherapy may help your pet live a longer happier life.

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