Your Pet Has Cancer. What Should You Do?

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Your dog or cat is a member of your family, and like anyone else under your roof, you want to provide the best care possible. But when it comes to budget-busting cancer treatment, how far would you go?

As a pet owner, cancer’s not something I even want to think about, let alone imagine having to deal with, but it’s a terrible reality. Companion animals are diagnosed with cancer, leaving tough choices for their human parents.

In the video below, Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson talks with a vet specializing in treating cancer. Check it out, then read on for more about treatments, cost, and information on where to get help.

1. Diagnosis

As with humans, the best – and least expensive – way to stop the spread of cancer is early detection. If you feel lumps on your pet, take them to the vet immediately.

If your vet suspects cancer, they’ll perform tumor staging – running a series of tests. This may include blood and urine screenings, x-rays, and a tissue aspirate, which uses a needle to draw a small sample from a tumor. After these tests, your vet may be ready to develop a prognosis and treatment plan for your pet. Depending on the type of cancer and the initial results, they may recommend further testing like an endoscopy, CT scan, or ultrasound.

2. Treatment options

Pets can receive the same cancer treatment humans do: chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and clinical trials, according to the Animal Cancer Care Clinic.  Often the equipment and chemical compounds are the same used on humans.

Chemotherapy – Drugs that are given either orally or injected. Compounds in the drugs attack cancer cells, slowing down their ability to grow. While not entirely pain or side effect free, the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine says that vets typically combine three different chemotherapy drugs for pets versus 10 or more used for humans, making the treatment milder.

Radiation therapy – A device is used to expose a certain area of the body to photons or electrons that break down the cancer. Pets may receive either short-term or long-term radiation therapy. According to the Veterinary Referral and Emergency Center of Westbury, short-term treatments are given up to four times on a weekly basis. Long-term treatments are typically 15 to 18 treatments stretched over three to four weeks.

Clinical trials – Veterinary oncologists use clinical trials to test new treatments and drugs. While clinical trials are experimental, they may benefit your pet. Your vet should be able to tell you about any available clinical trials and decide what benefit they may have for your furry companion.

3. Benefit to the pet

Ultimately, cancer is a tricky illness. While some cancers can be cured, others cannot and may require lifelong treatment to help your pet live more comfortably, and possibly prolong their life.

When it comes time to decide on a course of treatment, you and your vet have to consider both the financial cost to you and the benefit to your pet. The best thing you can do is to ask questions. Ask your veterinarian what he thinks the best course of treatment is, what outcome he thinks is likely, how this will improve the life of your pet, and the cost. If you’re not sure, get a second opinion, perhaps from a veterinary oncologist specializing in cancer treatments for animals.

4. Cost

Unfortunately, treating your pet won’t be cheap. For example, one pet owner paid $15,000 for a bone marrow transplant for his chow, according to this recent New York Times article. Radiation therapy for pets can cost around $1,500 just for pain relief sessions, with a full program costing about $6,000, according to The New York Times.

Then there’s medication. Pfizer received FDA approval for its anti-cancer drug for dogs, Palladia, in 2009, according to Reuters. This drug can be taken orally and is designed to treat mast cell tumors. Prices range from $3.99 for a 10 mg tablet, $4.85 for a 15 mg pill, and $16.99 for a 50 mg tablet on California Pet Pharmacy. To treat a 30-pound dog with Palladia, three doses of 15 mg tablets are recommended according to Pfizer’s client information sheet. That’s $14.55 a day for an indefinite period. You’ll need to get a prescription from your vet to order it online and bring your pup in for checkups as well.

These are just examples: Your actual treatments costs will vary. But cancer’s never cheap: Paying for the medications, treatments, and routine checkups will be expensive. Before deciding on a course of action, ask your vet about the full cost.

5. Getting help

If you have pet insurance, it may cover some or all of your pet’s treatments depending on the policy. If you don’t, you probably won’t be able to get insurance, since most insurance companies won’t cover pre-existing conditions.

If you can’t afford to pay for your pet’s treatment, talk to your vet or oncologist –  they may offer discounts, and many offer payment plans for expensive procedures. My vet, for example, allows monthly installments for treatments over $500. Another option is to apply for a specific type of credit and pay the bill off over time. Companies offering credit for veterinary care include CareCredit and Citi Health Card. If approved, you’ll get a credit line that you can use to pay for your vet’s expenses. However, you’ll be paying interest:  up to 26.99 percent with CareCredit.

Finally, there are dozens of small charities that help with vet costs. Here are a few examples:

  • The Pet Fund – A registered charity that helps cover vet costs for both dogs and cats. You can apply online after calling.
  • Canine Cancer Awareness – Provides some funding for needy pet owners. The charity also posts featured pets on their site and anyone can donate to further help with treatment. Your vet will need to complete the printed application.
  • The Dog and Cat Cancer Fund – In addition to research grants, this charity also helps low-income or struggling families pay for cancer treatments. You can apply online.

The bottom line

When talking to the vet in the video above, reporter Stacy Johnson asked for specifics on when to let go and when to pay for expensive treatment.  It’s easy to imagine busting the budget fighting a losing battle: Just as our pets are trained to please us, we’re trained to do whatever it takes to keep our loved ones – including the furry kind – alive and well.

She responded as you’d expect: There’s no simple answer. What you should do depends on factors including how much money you have, how old the animal is, how sick they are, and the quality of life they might expect during and after treatment. But if your vet genuinely cares, they’ll look beyond the dollar signs and help you make the right decision for you, your family, and your furry friend.

Ask a lot of questions and do your own research. Sites like the Blue Buffalo Foundation for Pet Cancer Awareness and Fetch a Cure have loads of helpful information on different types of cancer and treatment options.

Stacy Johnson

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