Caring for Pets with Cancer

Gunner (RIP)By Katie Anderson

Hearing a diagnosis of “cancer” can be overwhelming and can remind us of the relatively short time we have with our four-legged companions. Over half of senior pets will be diagnosed with some form of cancer and this means that many families face challenges and difficult decisions surrounding their care. Cancer is not one disease with one treatment. For some cancers, treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery may provide a cure. For others, treatments may only improve the pet’s quality of life and prolong survival. Regardless of whether or not you choose to treat your pet, there are several things you can do at home to provide compassionate care.

Managing pain: Recognizing and assessing pain in animals can be difficult as many animals instinctively hide weakness and pain. Monitor your pet’s behavior for subtle changes such as decreased activity levels, loss of appetite, hiding or decreased social activity, and poor grooming. More sudden and sharp pain may cause increased vocalization, loss of function or sensitivity in certain areas of the body. If you notice signs of pain, your veterinarian can prescribe a number of different medications to provide pain relief. Giving these medications on a predetermined schedule is often more effective than giving them “as needed.” In addition, complimentary pain management such as acupuncture, massage, or passive exercises at home can also be utilized. Your veterinarian can help you determine which medications and and/or strategies are right for your pet.

Nutritional support: Ensuring that your pet receives proper nutrition is always important, but it becomes even more important when he or she is battling a disease. Cancer can change your pet’s metabolism, and their usual diet may no longer provide adequate nutrition. Many cancer patients develop a condition called “cachexia”, which is characterized by loss of appetite, weight loss, and muscle wasting. Some research shows that diets high in protein and fat may prevent or reverse these changes. If your pet is not interested in eating, warming their canned food or pouring a bit of warm broth over their dry food may help increase their appetite. Your veterinarian may choose to prescribe anti-nausea medication or appetite stimulants to help as well. Finally, to ensure that your pet is staying hydrated, provide plenty of clean drinking water or ask your veterinarian if it’s necessary to give fluids under the skin (subcutaneous) at home.

Creating a comfortable environment: Many cancer patients exhibit decreased activity levels or difficulty moving throughout the home. You can increase your pet’s comfort by ensuring that food and water dishes and the litter box are located close to his or her favorite sleeping spot. For cats, lower food and water bowls if they are placed too high for your pet to jump. If your elderly pet tends to slip on hard floors, you can help by laying down yoga mats or placing toe grips on your dog’s claws to improve traction. As your pet spends more time sleeping, you can utilize pads, waterbeds, or egg crate mattresses to prevent ulcers and bedsores from forming.

Proper hygiene: Elderly pets with and without cancer often struggle with hygiene. Cats may no longer be able to properly groom themselves, and both dogs and cats may lose voluntary control of urination or defecation. If your pet spends long periods of time lying in bed, it’s important to check his or her skin regularly and if redness, ulcers or sores are noted, contact your veterinarian immediately. Thoroughly clean and dry both your pet (if able) and the bedding regularly to maximize good hygiene.

Caring for a pet with cancer can be a daunting task, but you don’t have to go through it alone.

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