As with our human loved ones, the possibility of cancer in dogs is also a reality. Receiving a cancer diagnosis on behalf of your furry friend is heartbreaking. Given the different types of cancer dogs can develop, different prognoses and treatment options, there are a number of steps you can take.
By knowing your pet, adjusting to the changes in their health and advocating for their needs, every dog lover can learn how to comfort a dog with cancer. Here’s how.
Talk to Your Veterinarians and Specialists
It’s important to advocate for a human loved one’s cancer care, and the same applies to pets.
Under ideal circumstances, there should be good communication between a referring veterinarian and a specialist, says Mackenzie Pellin, DVM, DACVIM (Oncology), DACVR (Radiation oncology) and professor at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Pet parents should take it upon themselves to make sure that information doesn't fall through the cracks. Records are generally shared between the vets on your dog’s healthcare team; but to avoid any back and forth, simply ask your vet to call your dog’s veterinary oncologist.
Do Research and Understand Your Dog’s Treatment Options
Knowledge is power. Researching and understanding the potential treatments your dog could undergo is an important step.
"In general, we have many of the same treatment options that human cancer patients have, but we use them in different ways," Dr. Pellin explains.
Possible treatments include:
- Radiation therapy
Your lifestyle, wishes and other aspects of your pet's health, along with the type of cancer/tumor your dog has, are all considerations when it comes to choosing a treatment.
"Quality of life, rather than quantity of life, tends to be a big focus of veterinary oncology," Dr. Pellin adds.
Know How to Tell When Your Dog Is in Pain
Over the course of treatment, your dog will have good days, but your dog may also experience pain.
You certainly don’t want them to suffer unnecessarily. However, assessing your dog’s level of pain is tricky because dogs have a tendency to hide discomfort.
“We’re looking at a slowdown of everything,” says Alice Villalobos, DVM, DPNAP, is the founder and medical director of Pawspice and Animal Oncology, a consultation service in Hermosa Beach and Woodland Hills, California.
The following signs, per Dr. Pellin and Dr. Villalobos, may indicate your dog is in pain:
- Difficulty breathing
- Lack of an appetite
- Disinterest in the people, toys and activities they’ve always enjoyed
- Any abnormal behavior such as limping, pacing, excessive panting, or refusing to lie down
“Anything that doesn’t seem quite like the normal dog is potentially a sign of pain,” Dr. Pelling notes. “Pain can be so subtle in dogs.”
Know How to Help Alleviate Pain
So how do you help your dog get through this difficult time? Consult with a veterinarian to recommend the best treatment for your dog.
They may offer the following pain treatment options, according to Dr. Pellin:
- Vet-prescribed oral medications
- Injections or topical medications
- Radiation therapy
Safely Play with Your Sick Dog
Pet parents who are caring for a dog with cancer need to walk the fine line between enjoying the time their dogs have left and not pressing them too hard.
Photo: iStock.com/CHI WAI CHEVY WAN
Every dog and diagnosis is different, but sick dogs generally need a lot of rest and low-stress activities, Dr. Pellin says. For example, if your dog has bone cancer, which increases the risk of fractures, it’s better to go for an easy walk rather than jogging or playing rough.
“With some cancers, you can still do a lot with your dog, but you want to avoid intense activities if there is a risk of internal bleeding or breaking bones,” Dr. Pellin says.
Other gentle playtime activities include a subdued game of tug-of-war or fetch in a more confined area. Stop the activity if they are tugging excessively or getting too excited.
“Because cancer mostly affects middle-aged and older dogs, sometimes just a nice snuggle on the couch can be a good way to spend time together,” she notes.
Provide Tools to Improve Your Pet’s Quality of Life
Several products are available for dogs suffering from pain, limited mobility and incontinence.
Photo: iStock.com/Ирина Мещерякова
Ramps can help dogs avoid staircases, enter and exit cars, and get on and off beds.
Diapers can cut down on messes and improve the quality of life for your family. Make sure to change your dog’s diapers frequently to prevent irritation and urine scalding.
Belly bands for male dogs, like Paw Inspired Belly Band Male Washable Wrap Dog Diaper, are also helpful for accidents or marking, Dr. Pellin says.
If your dog is having trouble moving their hind legs, a lift harness (like Frisco Rear Lift Handicapped Support Dog Harness) or sling can help them feel more secure while they’re going up and down stairs. These harnesses go around the rear of the dog and allow you to assist your pet during walks or navigating stairs.
For dogs with tumors in the neck or brain, it’s better to use a harness rather than a neck collar because it lessens pressure on the affected area. Harnesses should be snug but not too tight; you should easily get two fingers between the harness and skin.
Wheelchairs are an option for dogs who have trouble moving, but still want to go for walks. Dr. Pellin recommends fitting a wheelchair under the guidance of a physical therapist, rehab veterinarian, or similarly experienced medical personnel to make sure there isn't potential for rubbing or injury.
Not all fixes require buying specialized equipment. For dogs who may need better traction, put down rugs on slippery surfaces and/or slip booties onto their feet.
“Even just using a towel under the belly to provide assistance on slippery floors or stairs can be helpful,” Dr. Pellin says.
Additional Pet Care Considerations
When you’re caring for your dog with cancer, you want to do everything you can think of to help them along the way. Here are some other considerations for pet parents.
As research uncovers the importance of the presence of good bacteria in the intestinal tract, Dr. Pellin notes that “a high quality probiotic can't hurt and may help.”
You should be able to continue feeding your dog their normal high quality food, but if they’re actively receiving cancer treatment, Dr. Pellin recommends avoiding a raw diet and making sure to fully cook any fresh meats you feed your dog.
As with humans, undercooked or uncooked meat increases your dog’s risk of infection from food borne illnesses. When a dog is eating a raw diet, bacteria cannot be killed due to the lack of cooking the food. Because cancer treatments lower the immune system notably, that risk becomes too great.
Your vet may have additional recommendations.
"If a patient is on chemotherapy, we may recommend avoiding dog parks, groomers, etc., during certain times of their treatment protocol, but in general they can do their normal activities," Dr. Pellin explains.
"Pawspice" Care: What It Is and When to Consider It
Knowing the type of cancer your dog has will allow the vet to offer a general prognosis. Some are more favorable than others.
For example, there are many tumors that can be cured with surgery, especially if discovered when they are small, Dr. Pellin says. These include low-grade sarcomas, low-grade mast cell tumors, thyroid tumors and small tumors of the anal gland.
“Some tumors can have a prognosis of around a year with more aggressive treatment, such as lymphoma and osteosarcoma,” she says, “while others have a very poor prognosis, even with treatment.”
Starting with this knowledge can help you begin to consider the more difficult decision about end-of-life care–or “pawspice”–and ultimately, euthanasia.
For “pawspice,” Dr. Villalobos emphasizes “comfort care,” or making sure pets living with cancer aren’t suffering unnecessarily. This may involve:
- Stopping cancer treatments such as chemotherapy
- Increasing pain medication
- Increasing supplemental oxygen for dogs who aren’t breathing well
So, when is the right time? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t black and white. Pet parents need to look at their dog’s quality of life (pet parents can use the Quality of Life Scale to help determine this), pain levels and amount of suffering they’re experiencing.
“Pawspice often isn’t a point. [Rather,] it’s a transition toward the very end of life when the decline is really obvious,” she says. When your pet is experiencing “relentless and unnecessary suffering,” pawspice is definitely in their best interest.
Though it’s difficult to contemplate, planning the end of your pet’s life is a necessary part of caring for a dog with terminal cancer, Dr. Pellin says. She urges pet parents to picture what they want it to look like. Would you prefer for euthanasia to occur in a clinic or at home? Do you want other dogs or family members present?
Thinking about these questions early on will help you make objective decisions during emotionally turbulent times. And as difficult as it can be, remember to think about your dog’s happiness, not your own.
Nobody wants to learn their dog has cancer, but should you find yourself in that position, learning how to comfort a dog with cancer is an important part of loving your pet. If you’re wanting to focus on the positive, you could take a page out of this family’s book and make and fulfill a bucket list for your dog.
Additional reporting by Laura Willard.
More about cancer in dogs:
- Cancer in Dogs: Signs, Diagnosis and Treatment
- Dog Cancer Diet: What to Feed a Dog With Cancer
- Dog Skin Tumors: Identifying and Treating Growths on Dogs
Surgery might be the best option to try to stop your dog's cancer spreading to other parts of their body or to keep your dog comfortable if the lump is causing them pain. If a lump's position or size makes it difficult to remove, your vet may discuss treatment at a specialist veterinary hospital.What is the best thing to do with a dog with cancer? ›
Surgery might be the best option to try to stop your dog's cancer spreading to other parts of their body or to keep your dog comfortable if the lump is causing them pain. If a lump's position or size makes it difficult to remove, your vet may discuss treatment at a specialist veterinary hospital.Are dogs in pain when they have cancer? ›
Any part of your dog's body can be impacted by cancer, which can cause unnecessary discomfort. You may not realize there is an issue. That's why it's important for pet parents to be on alert for any signs of pain in their dog with cancer.What are the last stages of cancer in dogs? ›
End stages or final stages of cancer in dogs occur once the cancer has infiltrated organs to the point that they are unable to maintain normal body functions or reasonable quality of life.How long can a dog live comfortably with cancer? ›
With palliative surgery or radiation therapy, life expectancy after diagnosis and treatment is four months. Survival time increases to six to 12 months when chemotherapy is added to treatment.Do dogs with cancer sleep a lot? ›
Difficulty walking: Limping or refusing to use some limbs could potentially indicate a bone tumor. Extreme fatigue: Your normally active dog or cat may seem depressed and take no interest in exercise or play. It's also common for a pet with cancer to sleep several more hours per day than usual.How do dogs act when they have cancer? ›
Weight loss or loss of appetite. Discharge from any opening in the body, such as the nostrils, mouth, or anus. This includes bleeding, vomiting, and diarrhea. Bad odor.How do I know if my dog with cancer is suffering? ›
Signs of Pain in Dogs with Cancer
It may sound vague, however if your dog begins displaying any behavior that is not typical for them, it could be an indication of pain. Some of the most common signs of pain in dogs include: Limping. Loss of appetite.
If your pet is having difficulty breathing or exhibiting restlessness despite pain control, it may be time to help them make their peaceful transition. Any pet with a cancer diagnosis may experience a sharp decline at any point.Do dogs with cancer cry? ›
“Pain is a rather substantial sign of cancer,” says Zaidel. If your dog whines or cries out when you pat her tummy or pick him up, call your vet. Mouth tumors may cause noticeable discomfort when eating.
- Stay Close to Them. ...
- Don't Introduce Your Dog to New People or Places. ...
- Maintain Normal Activities as Long as Your Dog Is Able. ...
- Talk to Your Vet If Medication Is Needed.
- Weight loss. You may notice that your dog seems to be losing weight rapidly. ...
- Vomiting. Vomiting is a common sign of illness in dogs but can be concerning if a dog has a serious illness (such as cancer) or is very old. ...
- Diarrhea. ...
- Incontinence. ...
- Body odor. ...
- Dull eyes. ...
- Temperature changes.
In our study, the median age at diagnosis was ~9 years (8.8 years), supporting a recommended screening age of 7 for all dogs. For dogs belonging to breeds with an earlier median age at cancer diagnosis (6–7 years), screening should begin as early as age 4.Does cancer in dogs spread fast? ›
Sadly, malignant melanoma is prone to spreading quickly to other areas of the dog's body. Typically these tumors are dark-pigmented although they can also lack pigment. Melanoma in dogs is often found in and around the mouth or on the feet.Should I treat my old dog for cancer? ›
The age of an animal doesn't particularly influence my recommendations or my opinion of a prognosis as long as the pet is systemically healthy otherwise. I would much rather treat a healthy older pet with cancer than manage a young pet with diabetes or Cushing's disease or heart failure.Is it OK to not treat dog cancer? ›
“As an oncologist, I recommend treatment when the pet is likely to live longer with it than without it,” says Sue Ettinger, D.V.M. '98, a practicing veterinary cancer specialist.Is there anything you can do for a dog with cancer? ›
There are several types of therapies used to treat cancer in companion animals. These include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and immunotherapy. For some cancers, treatment will consist of a single type of therapy, while others may require combination therapy (2 or more different therapies).Is it worth treating a dog with cancer? ›
Treatment would be aimed at providing quality of life for as long as possible. And that's what should be at the top of your decision-making list: quality of life. A few months of discomfort from cancer treatment may be worth it if the prognosis is that your dog may then gain years of healthy life.What food is good for dogs with cancer? ›
Protein helps to support the body's cell repair and growth, which is important for dogs with cancer. It is also important to include a wide variety of vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, carrots, and green beans, as they are packed with antioxidants and other nutrients that are beneficial for dogs with cancer.Is it worth putting a dog through chemotherapy? ›
The dog will not be cured by chemotherapy but may have its life prolonged from 2–24 months [12,13]. The dog may feel better, still suffering from the cancer, or it may suffer from the side effects of the treatment. Untreated dogs have an average survival time of 4–6 weeks .