People often think being a veterinarian is about seeing sweet puppies all day. But I love old dogs. Everyone teases me about it. The grey muzzles. The curmudgeon-y look some of them get.  The older and odder, the more I love them. So, I really picked the right path when I decided to specialize in veterinary cancer care.

Because guess what? 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.

I saw some research recently that shows many pet owners are aware of the risk of cancer. In fact, 41 percent say their pet is likely to develop cancer in its lifetime. The part they don’t know is how different cancer care for pets is compared with the experience for people. So 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.

The same research shows that 74 percent of pets owners say that if their pet were diagnosed with cancer, they’d do everything possible to make them comfortable. Good news: We’re all on the same page! 
If I could teach all pet owners just two important things about cancer treatment, it would be these:

#1. It’s worth it to meet with a veterinary oncologist. People hesitate, 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. 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.  

#2. We will not cause your pet pain and suffering. In fact, that’s precisely what we’re working to avoid. The research shows that 45 percent of pet owners worry that treatment would cause their pet pain and 43 percent think their pet will suffer if they choose to pursue cancer care. (Thirty percent of pet owners with these worries still say they would go ahead.) But actually, pets tolerate cancer treatment really well. And we work hard to make sure they do. 

Here’s a quick, real-life example: I’m currently treating a black, mixed-breed dog named Vader. When she first came in, she was so sick and so skinny. But as her cancer treatment has progressed, she has gained weight every week. Now she’s back to a normal weight. When she comes into the hospital for treatment, she takes the treats out of our hands. She bounds onto the table. She loves to visit, because she feels so much better. We might not cure her. But right now, there’s so much joy. She’s hiking and enjoying the beautiful Colorado weather and having a great time.

Ozzie is another patient I think of. He’s been doing cancer treatments for a year and a half. And, during that time, he has hiked three to four miles every day with his dad in beautiful Estes Park, Colo., right outside Rocky Mountain National Park. In the winter, they snowshoed. That’s another great case where I know our veterinary hospital team is contributing to joy for that pet and that client. 

I do have stories about seemingly miraculous cancer cures for pets. But my personal success stories tend to be about pets who came in very sick or with family members who were very worried, and we 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. 

Dr. Karen Oberthaler, VMD, DACVIM (Oncology), graduated magna cum laude from the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in 2002. She completed an internship at the Animal Medical Center in New York City and a residency at the University of Pennsylvania. She practiced oncology for 13 years in New York City and in Miami before joining VCA Veterinary Specialists of Northern Colorado in 2019. Her clinical interests include lymphoma, osteosarcoma, mast cellgiosarcoma, and bladder cancer. She’s also interested in cancer prevention and palliative care. In her free time, Dr. Oberthaler loves skiing, running and exploring mountain towns. She’s also a potter, and she creates functional ceramics that she describes as simple, pretty and a little imperfect. Her studio name—Morning Dew Ceramics—comes from her daily greeting to her own sweet dog, Dewey: “Morning, Dew.” 
“74 percent of pet owners say that if their pet were diagnosed with cancer, they’d do everything possible to make them comfortable. Good news: We’re all on the same page! ”