News & Events


News and Events

My Pet Has a Cancer Diagnosis—Now What?

Being told that your pet has cancer is scary, and you will probably have a lot of questions about what comes next. Our oncology department will work with your family veterinarian to help you through your pet’s cancer journey, from diagnosis to treatment.  

Staging Your Pet’s Cancer

We will first gather as much information as possible about your pet’s cancer and their general health by performing diagnostic tests that may include:

  • Complete blood count (CBC) — A CBC measures the number of your pet’s different blood-cell types to screen for abnormalities, such as anemia, infection, and immunosuppression. There are very few cancers that can be detected on routine blood work, which is a common misconception.
  • Blood chemistry — Measuring different proteins in your pet’s blood provides information about organ function and overall health status.
  • Urinalysis — Testing your pet’s urine informs us about the function of their kidneys and other organs. VRC cancer diagnosis for pets
  • Imaging — Imaging modalities, such as X-rays, ultrasound, computed tomography (CT), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), are often used to localize cancerous masses, measure their size, and determine whether a primary cancer has spread to other body parts.
  • Biopsy — A sample of your pet’s cancerous tissue may be collected with a needle, or during a surgical procedure, to determine the cancer type.

The information will allow us to identify the type of cancer, how much it has advanced, and whether it has metastasized (i.e., spread) to other body parts. 

Treating Your Pet’s Cancer

Once we have established a thorough diagnosis, we can design a personalized treatment plan for your pet’s cancer, which will likely consist of a combination of treatments, such as:

  • Surgery — Surgical removal of a cancerous mass often offers the best chance for a complete cure, and surgery is often combined with chemotherapy and/or radiation to attack cancer from multiple angles. If complete excision is not possible, surgery may be performed to partially remove a tumor to make pets more comfortable, or increase effectiveness of other treatments.
  • Chemotherapy — Chemotherapy, which is the use of medication to kill cancer cells, is often used after surgery to kill microscopic cells that have spread from a primary mass, or to manage a cancer that cannot be surgically removed. Human chemotherapy medications are known to cause significant side effects to cancer patients; however, pets receive much lower chemotherapy doses and typically experience few, if any, side effects.
  • Radiation — Radiation uses a focused beam of energy to target and kill cancer cells, while sparing nearby tissue. We recently added a state-of-the-art Varian Halcyon linear accelerator, which is the most advanced unit available for both human and veterinary radiation. The Halcyon unit allows us to treat once-untreatable cancers by delivering high doses of radiation directly to cancer cells, and to reduce treatment times. Radiation can be used to cure a cancer isolated to a single mass, or as part of palliative care to shrink inoperable tumors, reduce pain, and improve a pet’s quality of life.

Treating cancer in pets

Your Pet’s Cancer Prognosis

Your pet’s prognosis will be based on her cancer type, stage, and location, and whether metastasis has occurred. Our oncology team can share statistics of pets who have had similar cancers; however, each pet responds to cancer treatments differently. Preserving your pet’s quality of life is always our primary concern, and our oncologists will present all information and treatment options so you can make the best decisions for them. With the advancements in veterinary medicine, we can cure many cancer types, but some are incurable, and our treatments will focus on keeping your pet comfortable and pain-free, and prolonging their time with you. 

If you have questions about your pet’s cancer diagnosis, or would like to schedule an appointment with our oncology department, contact us

 

The Night Before Christmas—Holiday Pet Hazards Version

’Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a—wait a minute, is that Jake and Fluffy, the Jones family’s golden retriever and cat creeping around the house late at night? What could they be up to?

It looks like Jake and Fluffy are quietly sneaking around so they don’t wake their sleeping family and ruin their big night. You see, Jake and Fluffy have been on their best behavior all through the holiday season, and now that it’s Christmas Eve and the big guy is on his way with their presents, they plan to enjoy themselves. Let’s see what they have in mind.

Christmas Tree Catastrophes

Fluffy heads for the Christmas tree that her family so carefully decorated. She has been eyeing the low-hanging bulbs for weeks, and now she plans to play to her heart’s desire. She knocks several onto the wood floor. One shatters. As she jumps away, Fluffy feels a sharp pain in her foot. She licks at the blood that seeps from her cut, and watches Jake head toward the tree stand. The water tastes kind of funny, but he happily laps it up, since his family was busy hosting a Christmas Eve party and forgot to fill his empty bowl. The Christmas tree water may contain dangerous bacteria, mold, or chemicals, but thirsty Jake isn’t too discriminating. 

Next, Fluffy pulls some glittery tinsel off the tree. She doesn’t understand why, but the long strands are irresistible, and she eats several. They may cause severe intestinal problems tomorrow, but she can’t help herself now. She moves on to the twinkling Christmas tree lights, and begins chewing on the cord. Her family has left the tree plugged in, since it is Christmas Eve night, and she can’t wait to gnaw through the long strand. Fortunately, as she is about to bite down, she hears Jake rummaging around in the kitchen and goes to investigate.

Holiday Food Fiascos

Jake had to smell the delicious dinner cooking all day long, and was disappointed that his family didn’t share any, but he is thrilled to discover that all the best leftovers are waiting in the trash. His family was too tired to take the garbage out before bedtime, which means that he can feast on turkey skin, bones, gravy, and mashed potatoes. He wolfs down as much as he can find, and licks up the evidence. Poor Jake will probably have a nasty stomach ache tomorrow. Let’s hope he doesn’t develop life-threatening pancreatitis after eating all that fatty food, or an intestinal obstruction, or perforation from the bones. 

After his decadent meal, Jake heads straight for the plate of sweets his family has left for Santa. He gobbles them down, and particularly enjoys the chocolate chip cookies and homemade chocolates. He rarely gets to taste chocolate, since his family normally makes such an effort to keep it away from him, telling him it’s “toxic to pets”—whatever that means.

Lastly, Jake sniffs out the treats left in the stockings hanging on the mantle. He pulls one down and finds more chocolate and several packs of chewing gum, which he devours. Hopefully, the gum doesn’t contain the artificial sweetener xylitol, which can cause life-threatening hypoglycemia or liver failure. 

Houseguest Hazards

Fluffy eats a few turkey scraps with Jake, and then wanders down the hallway into the guest room where Grandma and Grandpa are sleeping. She hopes to find the bottles of little round tablets she spotted earlier that looked like fun. She easily locates the pill bottles in the open suitcase, grabs one in her mouth, and runs down the hallway, where she chews the cap off, and eats a few of the small round pills before deciding they are too bitter. 

Fluffy leaves the pills on the floor, and heads to the back door, which one of the kids has left cracked open to ensure Santa can get into the house. She slips her paw into the crack and is able to open the door wide enough to fit through. Jake hears her, and noses the door open wider so he can also slip through, and they head out into the night. They wander down the street, but head back when they see the first morning light so they can rest up before tomorrow’s festivities. Thankfully they didn’t get lost or, worse, hit by a car. 

Jake and Fluffy had quite a night, and they may end up in the emergency room tomorrow, which will surely scare their owners and interrupt their holiday fun. If their owners would prevent these holiday dangers, they would have a safe, healthy holiday together.

To prevent a holiday pet emergency, follow these tips:

  •  Pet-proof the Christmas tree — Hang breakable decorations on higher branches, tuck all cords out of reach, and keep the tree stand covered so your pet cannot drink tainted water. Cats love to eat tinsel, so skip this nostalgic decoration if you have a feline friend in your home.
  • Ensure pets cannot get into dangerous or toxic foods — Fatty leftovers from your holiday dinner can cause a severe case of gastritis or pancreatitis, which may require hospitalization. Toxic foods, such as chocolate, raisins, macadamia nuts, and xylitol, can cause life-threatening complications if your pet eats them, so stick to pet food and pet-safe treats, and don’t leave human food put where your pet can eat it.
  • Alert guests to your pet-safety house rules — Ask guests to keep all personal belongings, including prescription and over-the-counter medications, safely out of your pet’s reach. Let them know not to feed your pet any human food, and that you will take care of your pet’s potty breaks, so they don’t accidentally let her out into an unfenced area where she can get loose.

If your pet takes a page from Jake and Fluffy’s story and gets herself into holiday trouble, our emergency department is open over the holidays when your family veterinarian may be unavailable. You can contact us 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for your pet’s emergency care.

Chemotherapy Versus Radiation—What’s the Difference?

A pet’s cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming, and explanations about cancer types, prognosis, and treatment options may be difficult to comprehend when you are blindsided by your beloved companion’s illness. If your family veterinarian has diagnosed cancer in your pet, the Veterinary Referral Center’s (VRC) oncology department will consult with them to design a treatment plan that best addresses your pet’s cancer, and ensure you understand every step of the diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis. Your pet’s treatment likely will include chemotherapy and/or radiation, two common cancer treatments that our oncologists use, independently or combined with other modalities, such as surgery, to target cancer cells. 

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is the administration of medication that can kill or slow the growth of cancer cells. The medications are often the same as those used for human cancer patients, and your pet’s exact medications will depend on their cancer type. Your pet may receive one chemotherapy medication at a time, or a combination of medications to target the cancer. 

How is chemotherapy administered to pets?

Chemotherapy medications may be administered by various routes; however,

many are given intravenously (IV) to reach immediate high blood levels. If your pet is prescribed IV chemotherapy administration, our hospital has a dedicated chemotherapy suite to ensure their comfort and safety during treatments. Some chemotherapy medications are available in pill form, which may be administered to your pet in the hospital or in the comfort of your home.

Chemotherapy vs. Radiation

What cancer types are treated with chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is part of almost every cancer patient’s treatment plan. The medications spread through your pet’s body via the bloodstream, treating the whole system instead of targeting only a specific area. Chemotherapy is useful for cancer treatment in the following situations:

  • When we know your pet’s cancer has metastasized (i.e., spread) from the primary site to another place in the body
  • If your pet’s cancer type has a high likelihood of metastasis
  • If your pet has other health problems that make him a poor surgery or radiation candidate  
  • If your pet’s cancer is disseminated throughout his body instead of growing as a single mass 

 

What are chemotherapy’s side effects in a pet?

Many pet owners are pleasantly surprised, because veterinary chemotherapy does not cause as many side effects as human chemotherapy. The most common side effect in pets receiving chemotherapy is mild nausea, which can be medicated. We believe the treatment for cancer should never be worse than the disease itself, and we strive to keep your pet’s life as normal as possible during treatments.

What is radiation therapy?

Chemo and radiation for dogs

Radiation therapy is the use of a focused radiation beam to kill cancer cells possibly left behind following surgery or with newer techniques growing within a mass itself when surgery is not an option. Radiation breaks the DNA inside cancer cells so the cells can no longer replicate. Treated cells die when they try to divide, and are cleared away by the body. Radiation can be used to:

  • Slowly shrink a mass when surgery is not possible
  • Shrink a tumor before surgical excision
  • Kill microscopic cancer cells following an incomplete surgery
  • Relieve pain in patients who cannot undergo surgery or if surgery is not elected

 

How is radiation therapy administered to pets?

Radiation treatments used to treat residual disease when surgery is not complete are administered daily, Monday through Friday, for 16 to 20 treatments. This is a form of definitive radiation. Palliative therapy, on the other hand, is used for pets to help alleviate pain when surgery is not elected or is not possible. Palliative radiation is typically administered weekly for four weeks, or daily over the course of a week, to alleviate pain and hopefully  improve quality of life. 

Pets are sedated or anesthetized during treatments so they remain completely still, and the radiation beam can be precisely focused on the tissue to be treated, sparing nearby healthy tissue from possible side effects.

In addition to providing the conventional radiation therapy techniques discussed above, VRC is one of only a few U.S. veterinary hospitals that has a Halcyon system, which is capable not only of intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) but can also perform a treatment called stereotactic radiation therapy (SRT). SRT is similar to Cyberknife, which is used in human hospitals. It allows our veterinary radiation oncologists to deliver radiation treatments with extreme precision in fewer doses, making treatment possible for previously untreatable cancers. 

What side effects are expected after a pet has radiation therapy?

Most pets experience few, if any, side effects from radiation therapy. The most common side effect is called moist desquamation, which is similar to a sunburn, is often seen as treatment ends, and may cause redness of the skin followed by a moist appearance before a scab begins to form on the skin. The scab should heal and fall off shortly after treatments end. Also, since your pet must be sedated or anesthetized for treatments, they may seem tired and want to rest when they return home. This is a side effect of the anesthesia, not the radiation treatments. 

Our veterinary team will work with your family veterinarian to decide the best treatment options for your pet’s cancer. Please do not hesitate to contact us with any questions, or to consult with our oncology department. 

The Advantage of a Board-Certified Veterinary Anesthesiologist Caring for Your Pet

Few things cause pet owners more anxiety and fear than their beloved companion undergoing anesthesia. We understand how frightening this experience can be—we’re pet owners, too. So, we work hard to alleviate those fears with expert anesthetic administration and monitoring, and protocols tailored to your pet. Recently, we welcomed Dr. Raphael Vezina, a board-certified veterinary anesthesiologist who will help us provide your pet with the highest possible standard of care.

What does board certified in veterinary anesthesiology mean?

Some veterinarians, like doctors in human medicine, dedicate their professional lives to a specialty, such as anesthesia, and its applications. An anesthesiologist undergoes three years of rigorous extra training to become board-eligible. The designation means he is specially trained to administer anesthesia and to anticipate, recognize, and care for any anesthetic issues.

This is followed by a rigorous examination to achieve board-certification status from the American College of Veterinary Anesthesia and Analgesia (ACVAA). Passing this examination grants the status of Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Anesthesia and Analgesia (DACVAA).

What does anesthesia involve for my pet and why is it necessary?

Anesthesia is controlled unconsciousness, where your pet is unaware, unable to move, and doesn’t feel pain, usually during surgery. These three points are key to ensuring the highest quality surgical care. Anesthesia may also be required for imaging cases, such as performing MRIs in animals.

The risks associated with anesthesia depend on the procedure being performed and your pet’s health status. Many pets do not need surgery—other than a spay or neuter procedure—until they are older and acquire dental disease or lumps and bumps. These older pets may suffer from concurrent diseases, such as kidney or heart failure, and a board-eligible anesthesiologist can help prepare patients best prior to anesthesia and tailor anesthetic protocols to each individual patient’s needs.

Many veterinarians refer their older patients to our hospital for surgical procedures because we have a board-certified anesthesiologist on staff. Your family veterinarian may do the same if your dog with heart issues, or your cat with chronic renal failure, needs to undergo anesthesia, or your pet needs in-depth diagnostic testing that is not available at her clinic. We will form a team to diagnose and treat your pet. As a specialty center, we are a full-service veterinary hospital that provides advanced care in neurology, emergency and critical care, internal medicine, oncology, and many other areas, and we are especially proud to offer the services of our board-certified anesthesiologist.

Before your pet’s anesthesia

After your family veterinarian refers your pet to us for a procedure requiring specialized anesthesia, we will first study her medical records to decide on her best anesthetic protocol. We may recommend additional testing, such as blood work, X-rays, an electrocardiogram, or an ultrasound, to determine the extent of your pet’s condition and the effect of anesthesia. We will perform a thorough physical examination to evaluate your pet’s health status, consult with your family veterinarian about the results, and formulate the best anesthetic plan to ensure your pet is pain-free, unaware, and safe during her surgery.

While your pet is anesthetized

When your pet is sufficiently sedated by the pre-medication, we will induce anesthesia, which generally involves an injectable medication to fully sedate her, and then an inhalant form to maintain her level of unconsciousness. With any anesthesia, we always place an endotracheal (breathing) tube down the pet’s throat to maintain the airway, provide oxygen and anesthetic gas, and prevent fluid from getting into the lungs.

anesthesia

Patients undergoing sedation and anesthesia are rigorously monitored so that any changes in their vital signs that could cause a danger to your pet is identified and treated according to current best practices.

Your pet will receive the same level of attention and care during anesthesia that you would. We use the same monitoring equipment used in human hospitals to check her vital signs, including:

  • Heart rate
  • Respiratory rate
  • Heart rhythm
  • Oxygenation level
  • Blood pressure
  • Temperature
  • Depth of anesthesia
  • Pain response

While machines are excellent at providing information regarding your pet’s status under anesthesia, there is no better monitor than our anesthesiologist, who will continuously check your pet’s signs and correct any problems.

After your pet’s anesthesia

The period after anesthesia is critical, and we will closely monitor your pet to ensure she is recovering well from anesthesia and all her vital signs are returning to an awake animal’s normal levels. To help your pet wake up smoothly and comfortably from anesthesia, we follow these rules:

  • Keep the room semi-dark and quiet.
  • Monitor pain and administer more pain control as needed.
  • Maintain ideal body temperature with warming units and blankets.
  • Ensure your pet is breathing well, alert, and swallowing normally before removing the endotracheal tube.
  • Keep your pet calm; some pets become dysphoric during recovery and may need additional sedation.

To mitigate stress and its consequences during your pet’s hospital stay, anti-anxiety medications may also be given as needed.

Your pet may be able to go home or may need continued hospitalization, depending on the procedure, how quickly she makes a full recovery from the anesthesia and her medical condition.

Has your family veterinarian referred your pet to our hospital for a procedure? Are you concerned about anesthesia? Give us a call to discuss the safety measures we take with every pet under the supervision of our board-certified anesthesiologist.