If we’re lucky enough to have a great pet who lives a long, long life, chances are pretty good they might 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 their lifetime.

Many pet owners are aware of the risk of cancer. In fact, a study conducted for the VCA Pet CancerCare Alliance shows that 41 percent of pet owners say their pet is likely to develop cancer in its lifetime. Here’s what pet owners are less likely to know: How different cancer care for pets is compared with the experience for people.

“Many of us know someone who has undergone cancer treatment. And so, people assume their pets undergoing cancer care will also be sick and miserable and maybe in pain. But in fact, when we’re treating pets, we’re trying to make them more comfortable. As comfortable as possible,” says Dr. Karen Oberthaler, a cancer specialist at Veterinary Specialists of Northern Colorado, a VCA hospital. 

Across the board, veterinary cancer specialists say one of the best steps you can take if your pet is diagnosed with cancer is getting all the information. “An oncologist’s job is to give pet owners options that address all their concerns,” says oncology specialist Dr. Zachary Wright, chair of the VCA Pet CancerCare Alliance. “Your time commitment, risk aversion and financial situation—and your pet’s unique health needs—are all part of the equation.”

Dr. Oberthaler agrees. “People hesitate to meet with a veterinary cancer specialist, because they feel like that means they’re on the path to provide all the care that’s possible. They worry about both the cost and the experience for their pet. But that consultation appointment is just to get more information. We’ll give you options. And you’ll get a chance to talk about what’s important to you for that particular pet given your specific situation."

“It’s true that as veterinary oncologists, we’ve done extensive training to offer chemotherapy, immunotherapy and radiation treatments,” she says. “But sometimes 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.”

The study shows that 43 percent of pet owners think their pet will suffer if they choose to pursue cancer care. “Actually, pets tolerate cancer treatment really well,” says Dr. Oberthaler. “And we work hard to make sure they do. Pain and suffering is precisely what we’re trying to avoid.” 

Dr. Oberthaler says she does have stories about seemingly miraculous cancer cures for pets. But her own most meaningful success stories tend to be about pets who came in feeling very ill or with family members who were very worried—and the veterinary care team at VCA did something to improve their time together. “Success to me is a comfortable, happy animal and a family that feels less stressed—and confident that they know what to do for their special pet,” she says.
“"Pets tolerate cancer treatment really well,” says Dr. Oberthaler. “And we work hard to make sure they do. Pain and suffering is precisely what we’re trying to avoid.” ”