What to Expect if Your Pet Has Cancer

August 16, 2022

Oncology Care in Monroeville, PA

Hearing your pet may have cancer is a shocking blow, leaving you overwhelmed and concerned about their future. Our team at Avets understands this difficult situation, and we are devoted to helping you navigate this frightening time as you try to ensure your pet receives the best possible care and outcome. Our oncology team is led by our oncology specialist, Dr. Anthony Calo, who has received extensive training in the field of veterinary oncology and who is practice-limited to medical oncology.

Pet cancer diagnosis

If your family veterinarian suspects your pet has cancer, our Avets oncology team will work closely with them to determine your pet’s exact diagnosis. To analyze oncology cases, we use several diagnostic tools such as:

  • History — We review your pet’s detailed medical history, including disease signs, time the condition has been exhibited, recent diagnostic results, and current and past medications. 
  • Physical examination — We thoroughly examine your pet from head to tail.
  • Complete blood count (CBC) — To assess your pet’s overall health, we perform a CBC, which evaluates your pet’s white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. A CBC can detect adverse health conditions—anemia, infection, inflammation, and clotting disorders—associated with cancer.
  • Biochemistry profile — A biochemistry profile evaluates your pet’s blood to determine which organs their condition affects. 
  • Cytology — We use a microscope to evaluate your pet’s bodily fluid samples—obtained via a fine-needle aspiration—to determine if the cellular properties indicate cancer.
  • Biopsy — In some cases, we must take a tissue sample to determine if cancer is present.
  • X-rays X-rays can indicate soft tissue and bony tumors and determine whether the cancer has metastasized to other organs such as the lungs or liver.
  • Ultrasound — We use diagnostic ultrasound to view a detailed image of your pet’s body structures. We also use ultrasound to facilitate needle placement when performing fine-needle aspiration.
  • Computed tomography (CT) — A CT is a specialized X-ray that produces cross-sectional body images, which can be useful when regular X-rays do not provide adequate detail.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) — MRI uses computer-generated radio waves and a magnetic field to create detailed body organ and tissue images and is especially useful when evaluating the brain.

Pet cancer staging

Cancer staging identifies disease extent and spread (i.e., metastasis) throughout the body. Proper staging provides an accurate diagnosis, directs an appropriate treatment plan, and helps determine your pet’s prognosis. Several staging systems are available, but the one your pet’s oncologist uses depends on their specific cancer. Most staging systems assess local, regional, and distant disease involvement, and some systems include other factors, such as whether clinical signs are present, and the cancer’s malignancy level based on microscopic examination. The tumor-node-metastasis (TNM) system devised by the World Health Organization is the standard system veterinary oncologists use for staging most pets’ tumors. TNM classification involves:

  • Tumor — T1 through T4 represent each tumor type’s specific size category.
  • Node — N represents lymph node involvement. N1 through N3, and a, b classifications describe regional lymph node characteristics such as the number of enlarged nodes, tissue adhesion, and neoplasia’s presence.
  • Metastasis — M0 or M1 indicates if distant metastasis exists.

Pet cancer treatment

Through pet owners’ early recognition of disease signs, and veterinary diagnostics and treatment advances, today’s pet cancer patients have better prognoses than in the past. Veterinary oncologists typically use a multifaceted approach to treat pets’ cancer, slowing progression or advancing a cure. Pets’ oncology treatments often include:

  • Surgery — When possible, our veterinary professionals surgically excise your pet’s cancer, removing all affected tissue. For cases in which only partial cancer removal is possible, your pet may receive radiation or chemotherapy treatments in addition to surgical debulking. Avets’s board-certified veterinary surgeons work closely with our oncology team to provide your pet with the most effective surgical approach for their condition. 
  • Radiation — Radiation attacks cells’ cancer DNA strands, causing breakages that prevent the cancer cell from replicating. Simply put, when a cell damaged by radiation attempts to divide, it collapses, and the body clears it away. Radiation is most often used to manage locally aggressive tumors that cannot be completely removed through surgery. Radiation can also be used to reduce pets’ pain and enhance their quality of life if the tumor has metastasized. To minimize adjacent healthy tissue damage, a veterinary oncologist precisely positions the radiation beam to target the cancerous tissue. Radiation therapy is typically administered in small daily doses or every other day over several weeks. Radiation’s most common side effect is redness and dry skin at the treatment site. If our oncology team recommends radiation as part of your pet’s cancer treatment plan, we can refer you to nearby veterinary radiation oncologists for continued care.
  • Chemotherapy — Chemotherapy, the administration of drugs that can kill cancer cells, is often used after surgical debulking to kill cancer cells that have spread or that cannot be surgically removed. In human medicine, chemotherapy drugs are notorious for causing significant, debilitating side effects, but chemotherapy is often well-tolerated in pets and we see minimal side effects. Chemotherapy’s goal for pets is to provide them with the best quality of life for as long as possible. Chemotherapy drugs may be administered intravenously during your pet’s veterinary visit, or we may instruct you to administer your pet’s oral medications at home. 
  • Immunotherapy — Immunotherapy stimulates your pet’s immune system to fight and destroy cancer cells. Most cancers respond best to immunotherapy after your pet’s tumor has been shrunk through radiation, surgery, or chemotherapy. 
  • Palliative care — Unfortunately, cancer cannot always be cured, and your pet deserves to be as comfortable as possible during their remaining time with you. We offer pain relief and medications to help improve their quality of life.

Cancer is a frightening diagnosis, but veterinary medicine advances have significantly improved pets’ prognoses. If your pet has received a cancer diagnosis, contact our Avets oncology team, and we will ensure your pet receives the care they deserve.