Learning that your pet has cancer provokes a tidal wave of emotions that likely include grief, anxiety, sadness, frustration, and helplessness. Then, after absorbing the initial impact, you may be overwhelmed by treatment options, advice, therapies, trials, and talk of hospice or end-of-life care.

In the middle of these swirling emotions and challenges is your faithful pet—who may or may not realize they are sick and will need extra love, attention, and support. Here are six ways to care for your beloved pet following a cancer diagnosis.

#1: Carefully consider your pet’s treatment options

Once your pet’s cancer is identified and confirmed through biopsy, your Neighborhood Veterinary Centers veterinarian will present you with your pet’s treatment options. Depending on the cancer type, location, and prognosis, the options may include:

  • Oncology referral — Board-certified veterinary oncologists specialize in pet cancer treatment and care. If appropriate, we’ll refer your pet to an oncology specialist for a consultation. 
  • Surgery — Surgical intervention may include mass removal, affected organ removal (e.g., spleen, kidney), or limb amputation. For the best prognosis, we often follow surgery with chemotherapy or radiation.
  • Chemotherapy — Chemotherapy, which most pets tolerate well, may be delivered by injection, intravenous infusion, or oral medication.
  • Radiation — Radiation therapy is recommended for pets with non-resectable tumors or to destroy cancerous tissue after an incomplete surgical excision.
  • Palliative care — Palliative care is non-invasive and can keep pets comfortable and ensure their remaining time is as enjoyable and pain-free as possible. Palliative care honors your pet’s life and—when the time comes—gives them a peaceful and dignified goodbye.

Your pet’s veterinarian will review each option’s cost, risks, and benefits to help you make the best, most informed choice for your pet.

#2: Follow your veterinarian’s recommendations

An incredible amount of information is available on caring for pets with cancer. But, while we always encourage our clients to be informed about their pet’s diagnosis, well-intentioned pet owners can easily be led astray by disreputable websites and online groups and abandon their pet’s treatment for an anecdotal or unsubstantiated claim, attempting to do what’s best for their pet. Sadly, these efforts often hasten cancer progression.

We know you may want to explore every possible avenue to help your pet, but we urge you to decide on your pet’s care plan with your veterinary team, and then to rely on the team for guidance, support, and advice. 

#3: Feed your pet, starve their cancer

Food has immense therapeutic value for pets who are fighting cancer. Appropriate nutrition for cancer patients fortifies their immune system and supplies a reliable energy source, preventing the body from breaking down its own fat and muscle tissue for energy (i.e., a starvation-like state referred to as cancer cachexia). The best cancer-fighting diets are energy-dense, with moderate protein, and generally low in carbohydrates, which are known to feed cancer cells.

Your pet’s veterinarian or veterinary oncologist will make customized nutrition recommendations based on your pet’s individual needs.

#4: Observe and record your pet’s daily progress

When you’re caring for a sick pet, your days may be filled with appointments, treatments, and complicated emotions—and losing track of time is easy. Keeping a pet journal can help you accurately track your pet’s condition and note any changes, concerns, or questions for the veterinary team. 

We suggest that every day you quickly note your pet’s appetite, thirst, and energy level, as well as any illness signs such as vomiting, diarrhea, pain, or changes in mobility or breathing. Also, noting specific dates and times can help your pet’s veterinary team determine if these signs are medication side effects or disease progression.

#5: Stay positive and make memories with your pet

Dogs and cats are innately tuned to their owner’s emotions and energy, and while they may not know their diagnosis, they know when their owner is sad, scared, or stressed, and they tend to take on these emotions as their own.

When you’re with your pet, try to stay focused on the present—remember, that’s exactly how they see the world. Make a list of your favorite things to do with your pet and make plans to spend quality time with them. Whether your pet lives longer than expected, or not long enough to complete the list, you’ll always treasure the time you spent together.

#6: Prioritize your pet’s quality of life

No matter your decisions during your pet’s cancer journey, keeping their quality—not quantity—of life as your compass will always ensure you make the right choice.

Each pet is an individual, and so is their journey after a cancer diagnosis. You may need to stop at times, reassess your pet’s status with your veterinary care team, and change your treatment goals. You may need to ask yourself difficult questions, including:

  • Will or does cancer treatment make my pet fearful, stressed, and anxious? (e.g., frequent veterinary visits, medications, injections)?
  • Is my pet suffering?
  • Does my pet still get joy out of life?
  • Am I keeping my pet alive because I don’t want to say goodbye?

Along with your Neighborhood Veterinary Centers’ veterinary team, pet cancer support groups and veterinary grief counselors can help you walk through these challenging questions and find objective answers. Your veterinarian can also connect you with reputable virtual or in-person resources for ongoing and individualized support.

Accepting your pet’s cancer diagnosis can seem like an enormous and impossible task, but small, actionable steps can help you feel in control and purposeful during such an emotional and uncertain time. For additional resources on caring for pets with cancer, palliative care, and pet-loss support, contact Neighborhood Veterinary Centers.