As the parent of four dogs over the age of 10 years old, veterinarian MacKenzie Pellin knew that her future could include caring for a dog with cancer and was alarmed by any observable limp, lump or bump.
Her paranoia was justified. Gatsby, her smallest dog, “wasn’t the brightest, but he was always happy.” The spunky schnoodle (Schnauzer-Poodle mix) would often challenge bigger dogs and leap off huge embankments with no fear. But then he stopped eating, started losing weight and eventually was diagnosed with intestinal lymphoma.
“The saddest part, when he was getting really sick, was that his personality started to go,” says Dr. Pellin, DVM, DACVIM (Oncology), DACVR (Radiation oncology), and professor at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
About a year later, Dr. Pellin started seeing similarly alarming signs in her bigger dog, Olive—a Greyhound-German Shepherd mix who liked to lie on the deck and “survey her domain.” She was severely arthritic and not eating well.
“I had a bad feeling, so we did an ultrasound and found a big liver tumor,” Dr. Pellin says. “It ended up being a tumor of blood vessels, which is about as nasty as you can get.”
In both cases, Dr. Pellin made the difficult decision to euthanize her beloved dogs. But as a veterinary oncologist and clinical assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, she was in a good position to provide Gatsby and Olive with a high quality of life before they died.
By knowing your pet, adjusting to the changes in their health and advocating for their needs, she says, every pet parent caring for a dog with cancer can do the same.
Talk to Your Veterinarians and Specialists
It’s always important to advocate for your human loved ones as they navigate a medical system, and the same applies to pets living with cancer. Under ideal circumstances, there should be good communication between a referring veterinarian and a specialist, Dr. Pellin says. But doctors are fallible, just like anyone else; they sometimes get too busy, play phone tag or miss emails. Pet parents should take it upon themselves to make sure that information doesn't fall through the cracks, Dr. Pellin advises.
“Usually records are shared behind the scenes, but if people are going back and forth, you can ask for the doctor to call the specialist or vice versa,” she adds. “If anything is unclear, I encourage people to have their vet call so everyone is on the same page.”
Know How to Tell When Your Dog Is in Pain
Assessing your dog’s level of pain is tricky because dogs have a tendency to hide discomfort. Any abnormal behavior—such as limping, pacing, excessive panting or refusing to lie down—could be a sign of pain, experts say.
“When they’re in decline, they’ve lost [mental activity], [their] appetite is gone,” says Alice Villalobos, DVM, DPNAP, founder and medical director of Pawspice and Animal Oncology, a consultation service in Hermosa Beach and Woodland Hills, California. “We’re looking at a slowdown of everything.”
Difficulty breathing is a major warning sign that the animal is suffering, as is lack of appetite and disinterest in the people, toys and activities they’ve always enjoyed, Dr. Pellin says.
“Pain can be so subtle in dogs,” she explains. “As part of their personalities, they just want to make people happy, so sometimes they hide things and push through the pain. Anything that doesn’t seem quite like the normal dog is potentially a sign of pain.”
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, Dr. Pellin says.
Every dog and diagnosis is different, but sick dogs generally need a lot of rest and low-stress activities, she adds. 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. “If they’re really tired all the time, you want to let them set their own pace.”
Other gentle playtime activities include a subdued game of tug-of-war or fetch in a more confined area, Dr. Pellin says. 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 says.
Provide Tools to Improve Your Pet’s Quality of Life
A number of products are available for dogs suffering from pain, limited mobility and incontinence.
Ramps can help dogs avoid staircases, enter and exit cars, and get on and off beds, Dr. Pellin says. Solvit’s Wood Bedside pet ramp, for example, is 25-inches tall, allowing for easier access to taller beds, and it has a ribbed carpet surface to help prevent slipping.
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Other solutions don’t require buying specialized equipment; Dr. Pellin recommends putting down rugs on slippery surfaces and using booties for better traction.
“Even just using a towel under the belly to provide assistance on slippery floors or stairs can be helpful,” Dr. Pellin says.
Diapers can cut down on messes and improve the quality of life for your family, Dr. Pellin says. Make sure to change them frequently to prevent irritation and urine scalding. She says belly bandsfor male dogs are also helpful for accidents or marking.
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If your dog is having trouble moving their hind legs, a lift harnessor sling can help them feel more secure while they’re going up and down stairs, Dr. Pellin says. These harnesses go around the rear of the dog and allow you to assist your pet during walks or navigating stairs. Solvit’s CareLift Rear Lifting Harness, for example, is designed to lift dogs from both the hips and abdomen.
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.
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Wheelchairs are an option for dogs who have trouble moving, but still want to go for walks, Dr. Pellin says. She 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.
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When to Consider “Pawspice” Care
Dr. Villalobos coined the term “pawspice,” the animal equivalent of hospice, and has long advocated for palliative care for pets. She developed a quality of life scale to help pet parents to make tough decisions when caring for a dog with terminal cancer.
Dr. Villalobos emphasizes “comfort care,” or making sure pets living with cancer aren’t suffering unnecessarily. This may involve increasing pain medication or supplemental oxygen for dogs who aren’t breathing well, and calling off chemotherapy treatment when the animal moves into the final stage of life.
“Pawspice often isn’t a point, it’s a transition toward the very end of life when the decline is really obvious,” she says. “Life is no longer worth living for these patients, and we try to help people see that so they’re not trying to hang on when the pet is in futility, and there’s relentless and unnecessary suffering.”
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 owners 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 remember to think about your dog’s happiness—not your own.
“Dogs don’t know that they’re sick and they have cancer, or what their prognosis is,” Dr. Pellin says. “They’re happy living their life. Most of the emotional component is on the humans.”