A bomb-sniffing dog needs a good, healthy nose, and Abba was no exception. Abba worked for four years at Palm Beach International Airport in Palm Beach, Florida, and was sometimes on site when the President of the United States would touch down.
Her handler and 25-year veteran of the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, Deputy Michelle Shaffer, says Abba would be right there “searching everything in the surrounding area when the Secret Service would ask us.”
That’s why Shaffer took it seriously when Abba started snoring loud enough to wake her and would sometimes make a weird snorting noise during the day.
“It was almost like she was having a hard time breathing, but it would go away so fast that I couldn’t get a phone out fast enough to film it,” she says.
It was Friday, and Abba’s veterinarian told her to keep an eye on it and wait for their next checkup. Then, over the weekend, Shaffer saw watered-down blood on the floor. She figured it could be a loose tooth or a dental problem, so she checked the mouths of Abba and all the other cats and dogs in the house. She didn’t find anything.
Then, tying her shoes to go to her own doctor’s appointment on the following Monday, Shaffer saw Abba sneeze blood onto the floor.
“I took a picture of it and sent it to the veterinarian and asked if I needed to come in now or just make an appointment,” she says. “She said, ‘Now.’”
‘This was the end of her working career’
When Shaffer and Abba showed up to VCA Palm Beach Veterinary Specialists, the veterinary team ran blood work, which looked normal. Abba came back the next day for a CT scan, which takes cross-sectional images of a patient to get a better picture than a single X-ray image. A biopsy of the tumor tissue confirmed cancer.
Abba’s regular doctor, emergency veterinarian Dr. Michele Tucker—who regularly examines working dogs at the clinic with medical director Dr. Robert Roy—saw Abba when she came in. A nasal tumor would mean Abba’s working life was finished.
“For a dog that sniffs bombs, this was the end of her working career,” Dr. Tucker says. “We can't treat cancer with radiation and know that we're going to save her nose for her job.”
Dr. Tucker diagnosed a nasal tumor with the CAT scan and biopsy of the tumor tissue, then handed over the case to the Radiation Oncology Team at VCA Palm Beach Veterinary Specialists. Dr. Philip Treuil, a board-certified radiation oncologist, worked with his team and developed a treatment plan for radiation therapy.
Dr. Tucker says the Florida practice is lucky to have the East Coast doctor to call on.
“Dr. Treuil consults with the client, discusses the way that radiation is done, the advantages of it and the complications,” she says. “Then he develops a customized treatment plan and works with our radiation oncology team to implement it. Dr. Treuil was involved on the very first day of treatment with pictures we send electronically of the patient’s positioning in the radiotherapy device to confirm that Abba's getting the correct dosing in the correct spots.”
On-site veterinary assistant Christian Daniel and medical physicist Cindy Dawn-Smith made sure the protocols and treatment plan were followed.
While Abba’s working days were over, the team and Shaffer hoped her days at home could be extended with treatment.
“The radiation can elongate the life,” Daniel says.
Shaffer says Dr. Treuil made it clear the tumor could eventually reach Abba’s brain without radiation to shrink it. The treatment regimen often ranges from 18 to 22 treatments to shrink tumors and anywhere from two to six treatments for palliative or pain-reducing radiation therapy.
‘If nasal tumors are recognized early, we have a lot of success’
Radiation therapy at VCA Palm Beach Veterinary Specialists benefits heavily from the use of the Halcyon linear accelerator, which targets radiation to spots specific to just a few millimeters and can sometimes reduce tumor size without surgery, says Dawn-Smith.
“This allows us to do get into the patient and treat a tumor without having to cut them open,” she says. “If nasal tumors are recognized early, we have a lot of success. The tumor almost drains out.
“Chemotherapy almost feels like a ‘spray-and-pray’ approach to cancer therapy, but the linear accelerator has a ninja-like ability to target a tumor and essentially cut it out with radiation,” she says. Dawn-Smith, who worked with human patients years ago, says she brings that same precision to cases at the veterinary hospital.
Because veterinary patients receive anesthesia, unlike fully awake human patients at human hospitals, the staff take extra care to make sure patients are calm, safe and happy, Dawn-Smith says.
“They’re like babies. It's like pediatrics. They have no idea what's going on. They're anesthetized. So all of us back here develop relationships with the patients to make them feel comfortable, so they can come back again and again and trust us as we do the same thing every day.”
Dogs are resilient
Dogs are very resilient though, according to Daniel, who helps wake up dogs from anesthesia for the 10-to-15-minute treatments and then gets them eating as soon as they’ve woken up.
“Every time, I give Abba a cookie on the way out,” Daniel says.
While the procedures are relatively fast, cat and dog owners sometimes come an hour or two to get there, so they need to leave pets for the day or even overnight.
It isn’t the first time Shaffer has been through cancer treatment for a working dog either. Her first dog had prostate cancer. Her second dog, Fulty, had surgery to remove a thyroid tumor followed by radiation. It sounds unlucky, but Shaffer says she’s always wanted dogs, and she’s happy to have the ones she’s got.
“When I was a kid, I always wanted a dog. My parents wouldn't let us have one because we didn't have a big backyard … and our backyard went down to a canal,” she says. “So I got my first one when I was in the narcotics unit with the Sheriff’s Office. And that just started the flow [of animals].”
‘She acted like she was 6 months old. And she still does.’
At press time, Abba was doing great. Shaffer says a few weeks of radiation wasn’t too rough on the retired working dog so far. She comes in nearly every day for treatment, according to the medical team.
“They say the treatment will give her a good year, a year and a half seems,” Shaffer says. “My guess is, it'll go beyond that. She’s a little dog that doesn't like to slow down. And they told me she would, but she hasn’t. She’s running and playing and catching balls. When I got her when she was 3, she acted like she was 6 months old. And she still does.”
November is National Pet Cancer Awareness Month. For more on cancer prevention, screening and treatment, visit the VCA Pet Cancer Care Alliance website.
“"All of us back here develop relationships with the patients to make them feel comfortable, so they can come back again and again and trust us as we do the same thing every day," says Cindy Dawn-Smith.”