What is Chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy are drugs used to destroy tumor cells by attacking rapidly dividing cells which are common in most types of cancer. Most chemotherapy agents are injectable medications that have to be given by specially trained chemotherapy nurses in the hospital, others are oral medications that can be given at the hospital or at home in some cases.
At our hospital, we have a specialized area to treat our chemotherapy patients that is separate from the rest of the hospital that ensures safety as well as a calming environment for your pet. We also have specialized equipment to keep us, your pet, and you safe while administering chemotherapy.
Are there any side effects with chemotherapy?
The most important thing to remember about chemotherapy is that we use relatively lower doses compared to people, so our rate of side effects is much lower than what you may have heard or seen in friends or family receiving chemotherapy.
- Only about 20% of animal patients have side effects to chemotherapy.
- Only about 5% will have severe side effects that could potentially put them in the hospital.
- About 15% will have side effects that are mild enough that you could treat at home with oral medications. These medications include anti-nausea medications, anti-diarrheal medications, appetite stimulants, and antibiotics.
What your pet may need depends on the symptoms and how significant they are.
What are the side effects of chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy attacks all the rapidly dividing cells in the body. These include the cancer cells as well as the lining of the intestines and the bone marrow. When the intestines are affected, we can see decreased appetite, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. This usually happens between 3 and 5 days after the treatment and can be treated with medications if mild. If severe, your pet may need to spend a few days in the hospital to get IV fluids to prevent dehydration and medications until they are eating and drinking again well on their own.
When the bone marrow if affected, we can see a low white blood cell or platelet count. This could cause lethargy, decreased appetite, diarrhea, fever or an infection. Most patients, even if the white blood cell count is very low, do not show any symptoms and oral antibiotics at home are the only treatment needed. If the white blood cell count is very low and your pet has a fever or feels sick, a stay in the hospital for a day or two on IV fluids and antibiotics until they are feeling better may be needed, although this is rare. The white blood cell count is routinely checked one week after the treatment, when the white blood cell count is at its lowest, to monitor for these problems and be proactive in treating this side effect.
How is chemotherapy given?
- Injectable chemotherapy is almost always given IV (in the vein) through a temporary catheter.
- Some treatments are given over a few minutes, some over 20-30 minutes, and some over several hours.
- Each specific drug has a specific way to be administered.
- Oral chemotherapy is either given every few weeks at the hospital or daily or every other day at home by you.
Am I at risk if my pet has chemotherapy?
With most chemotherapy agents there are byproducts that are processed by the body and eliminated either through stool or urine. Most are processed to the point that they have little to no affect on other animals or people.
There are some medications, that when eliminated from the body, can potentially cause harm to humans and other animals and your oncologist will let you know what precautions to take and if you are at risk.
If any precautions should be taken they are usually to pick up stool right away and limit any exposure of stool and urine from pregnant or nursing women. A few take home medications should be given with gloves and it is always a good habit to wash your hands after giving any oral medications.
What type of cancer is treated with chemotherapy?
Most cancers can be treated with chemotherapy, however your oncologist will determine what type of treatment is best for your pet and your family. Every pet is different and it is important that each pet is evaluated on a case by case basis to ensure superior care. You will work directly with your oncologist to determine what are the best treatment options for your pet.
- Multiple myeloma
- Mast cell tumor
- Bladder cancer
- Mammary cancer
- Anal sac tumors
- Histiocytic sarcoma
- Injection site sarcomas
- Additional types of tumors