If you’re lucky enough to have a great pet who lives a long life, chances are strong that they may eventually get cancer. In fact, The Veterinary Cancer Society estimates 1 in 4 dogs—and 1 in 5 cats—will develop cancer at some point. In recognition of Cancer Awareness Month, we asked dedicated cancer care specialists at VCA Animal Hospitals what they’d tell pet owners about cancer to help prepare them to make decisions about cancer care for their pet someday. Here’s what they said. 

Cancer specialists help you decide what to do—and what not to do. 

It’s true veterinary cancer specialists do extensive training to offer surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy and radiation treatments—and invest in staying up to date with ongoing cancer advancements. But sometimes, they say, the most important thing is to know when not to move forward. “Sometimes it’s best to back off and just enjoy the time that’s left. It’s all about your pet’s quality of life. If pulling back to less aggressive treatment means you get less time with them—but it’s really good time—that’s what matters,” says cancer specialist Dr. Karen Oberthaler, a cancer specialist at VCA’s Veterinary Specialists of Northern Colorado.

Cancer care for pets is designed to make them feel better—not make them feel worse. 

Many of us know someone who has undergone cancer treatment. It’s easy to assume that a pet undergoing cancer care will also be sick and miserable and maybe in pain. “In fact, when we’re treating pets, our key goal is to make them more comfortable—as comfortable as possible,” says Dr. Oberthaler.

We know you’re worried about your pet—and also about the cost of care. 

“An oncologist’s job is to give pet owners options that address all their concerns,” says cancer specialist Dr. Zachary Wright, chair of the VCA Pet CancerCare Alliance, a network of preeminent veterinary specialists across VCA animal hospitals offering an interdisciplinary team approach to treating cancer in pets. “Your time commitment, risk aversion and financial situation are all part of the equation.”

Philip J. Bergman, DVM, MS, PhD, Diplomate ACVIM (Oncology)

Medical professionals know more about how to treat specific cancers effectively than they did even a few years ago. 

New understanding about how particular types of tumors grow and move through the body helps veterinarians identify more effective treatments. “For example, more detailed information from the pathologist might give us better understanding of how fast the tumor cells are dividing. That helps us select medication that matches the tumor. A fast-moving cancer needs a more aggressive therapy. A slow growing tumor doesn’t need that and choosing a more aggressive therapy won’t help us that much,” says Dr. Barb Kitchell, a specialist in cancer care at VCA Veterinary Care Animal Hospital and Referral Center in Albuquerque, NM. “Today we’re not stuck with a one-size-fits-all therapy.” 

Veterinarians have better diagnostics than ever before.

Exciting new medical tools can offer additional information that helps veterinarians tailor the approach to the specific pet’s health situation. For example, many specialty veterinary hospitals can offer computed tomography (CT), creating detailed images of internal organs, bones, soft tissue and blood vessels. “These diagnostic scans offer significant advantage in identifying whether—and how much—a tumor has spread in the chest cavity,” says Dr. Phil Bergman, director of Clinical Studies for VCA Animal Hospitals, an adjunct faculty member at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and principal veterinarian investigator for the canine melanoma vaccine Oncept. “That’s critical when deciding whether to go ahead with a surgery.”

“Another example of a new diagnostic advancement is a urine test that can identify bladder cancer in approximately 85 percent of cancerous dogs,” he says. “These kinds of less invasive diagnostic options help us identify cancer earlier, and with less difficulty and expense, and make smart decisions about what will help that pet most—which is great for pets, pet owners, and veterinarians.” 

Companies have developed treatment options specifically for pets.

“Until recently, veterinarians have mostly repurposed human medications for cancer treatment in pets. But within the past few years, companies have developed cancer therapies specifically for dogs. Because the tools are more precise, we can use the drugs more effectively,” says Dr. Wright.

No matter how prepared you think you are, it will be a tough day if your pet is ever diagnosed with cancer. The biggest takeaway here: Follow through on your veterinarian’s recommendation to meet with a specialist. The options for pets are changing fast, and the opportunity to tailor the treatment options to your pet’s needs is on the upswing. And no matter what your pet’s situation, consulting with a specialist lets you make confident, informed decisions. 

To find the VCA Pet CancerCare Center nearest you and connect with a pet cancer care specialist, click here.

“"Less invasive diagnostic options help us identify cancer earlier, and with less difficulty and expense, and make smart decisions about what will help that pet most," says Dr. Phil Bergman.”