Sadly, it’s not all that uncommon to hear of a much-loved family pet being diagnosed with cancer. In fact, when it comes to pet cancer stats, it is estimated that one in four dogs will develop cancer at some point during their lifetime. Furthermore, close to 50% of dogs aged 10 years + will develop cancer. It’s a similar story for cats.
The most common cancers found in dogs include: lymphoma, mast cell tumors, bone cancer (osteosarcoma), melanoma, mammary gland carcinomas and hemangiosarcoma.
Amongst the most common cancers found in cats are lymphoma, squamous cell carcinoma, basal/mast cell tumour, mammary carcinoma and fibrosarcoma.
5 ways to support clients
As a pet professional, you may find yourself in a position where you must discuss diagnosis, treatment and prognosis for pet cancer. While communicating with clients might be something you do daily, discussing pet cancer can be particularly challenging.
It may be that the owner had no idea his or her pet had cancer, or perhaps the long-term outlook is not all that positive. Either way, it is a difficult conversation to have and one that should be approached with care and empathy. Here are 5 key things to consider.
1. Address pet cancer misconceptions
There are many myths circulating about pet cancer and it’s really important to address common misconceptions from the very beginning. This will help ensure both you and your client is on the same page.
Certainly, a popular belief is that the prognosis is bad. Indeed, this really depends on numerous factors – such as the health of the animal, its age, at what stage the cancer is at, the location and type of cancer, and so forth.
However, upon the initial diagnosis, it’s essential to talk to the client about these variables. You can help them to understand that some cancers can be managed effectively for quite some time.
Asking your client at the start how much they know about pet cancer and what their biggest concerns are can help identify gaps in understanding. This may provide you with an ideal opportunity to dispel common myths and help ease some of your client’s stress and upset.
2. Discuss the potential treatments
It’s important to help pet owners to understand the different treatment options, as there are a few. While there might not be a cure, it can be possible to manage cancer and enable pets to continue living a fairly good quality of life. Treatments include chemotherapy, surgery, radiation and palliative care.
However, it’s vital to explain there is no silver bullet treatment. Plus, treating cancer in pets is very different from treating cancer in humans. Veterinary Oncologist Dr Peter Bennett from the University of Sydney is quoted as saying, “In people, the prime aim is to cure the patient. For us, it is to give the patient as long a period of good quality of life as possible, rather than necessarily trying to cure them.
“There are some diseases in people, that yes they can cure them but they have to use very aggressive treatments and we don’t think that’s fair to subject our patients to that when they are not aware of why this is happening.”
Often it is about finding a balance between the least aggressive and invasive treatment and the greatest quality of life. This might mean that survival time is shorter but the pet will suffer less.
Of course, these are tremendously difficult decisions for pet owners to make, so it’s important to encourage ongoing conversation. Even when a particular treatment path is selected, it’s vital to continuously assess the pet’s quality of life and general wellbeing.
3. Help set realistic expectations
It’s paramount that pet professionals set realistic expectations. No one wants to give a client false hope. Realistic expectations are based on having all the facts. You can play a vital role in ensuring your client knows all he or she needs to know to be able to make a well-educated decision.
Helping pet owners to really understand the type of cancer their pet has, can help them know what the future is likely to hold for their beloved pet.
4. Acknowledge end of life
When a pet enters into a phase of palliative care, it’s important to assist owners to play a supportive role. For many people, this is unchartered territory. You may need to explain the aim of end-of-life care.
Educating owners on how to assess their pet’s level of pain and know when treatment modifications are needed can be useful. Additionally, educating your client on signs to look for can help prepare them for the worse. This can be a particularly difficult conversation to have, but it can be very helpful in assisting owners to mentally prepare for the death of their pet.
Assisting clients to identify benchmarks to gauge their pet’s quality of life can assist them in making a decision about euthanasia.
5. Consider how you present the information
Discussing pet cancer with a client is possibly one of the most challenging things vets, amongst other pet professionals, must do as part of their job. However, it’s essential to recognise that you play a major role in empowering your client to make informed decisions.
Helping clients to be active participants in their pet’s care is vital and centres on clear understanding. However, when a client is upset or in shock, they may not be able to absorb information in the same way they would normally. When discussing cancer in pets, the following tips may come in useful.
- Try to be clear and to the point, but also caring.
- Repeat the main points and also provide a written summary, which your client can take away with them.
- Offer to convey the information to a friend or relative.
- Ask the client to repeat back the key points to you, as this will help you gauge their understanding.
Cancer in dogs: advice & info for owners
National Pet Cancer Awareness Month (November)
Loss of a pet: helping clients cope
Photo by Darby Henjum on Unsplash