Christina’s Resource Roundup: Pet Cancer Awareness Month

Christina Bach, MSW, LCSW, OSW-C
Christina Bach, MSW, LCSW, OSW-C

Another month – Another Awareness Cause! (This time, our pets!)

Did you know that November is National Pet Cancer Awareness month? I am a “pet parent” to three amazing dogs, two of whom do therapy work with me. Before I worked in “human” oncology, I was privileged to work with many of the outstanding veterinary oncologists at the Ryan Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. I had no clue about cancer and pets before I started working in Veterinary social work, except that my first family dog, Shadow, died suddenly when a tumor “burst” in his liver. I was 12 and back then there really was not a lot of education about cancer in companion animals, let alone about treatment options.

Flash forward to 2012. Let’s look as some facts about cancer and pets

  • Did you know that cats and dogs receive chemotherapy and radiation? They receive many of the same drugs that humans do.
  • Cancer accounts for nearly 50% of all disease related pet deaths each year (Veterinary Oncology and Hematology Center).
  • Dogs get cancer at roughly the same rate as humans (
  • One in four dogs will die of cancer (
  • Cancer risk increases with age in both cats and dogs.
  • Pets get cancers like lymphoma, melanoma and sarcomas, just like humans!

What’s striking about this information? Cancer is remarkably similar in its incidence and treatment between humans and companion animals. However there is one BIG difference, most pet parents in the United States do not have pet insurance. The cost of chemotherapy and radiation for a dog or cat can be upwards of $5000 (sometimes even more)!

One of the best things I ever did was purchase pet insurance for my three fur kids. The peace of mind that this coverage gives me, should I ever have to face a cancer diagnosis and treatment for one of the dogs, is wonderful. Most pet health insurance plans have coverage for cancer treatment and some even cover complimentary therapies like acupuncture. For more information about pet health insurance check out this article with links to the providers (Pet insurance providers). Be sure to do your homework and ask specific questions. For example:

  • Do you cover pre-existing conditions?
  • Do you have a maximum dollar amount you will pay for the lifetime of a pet?
  • Do you cover chemotherapy, radiation and diagnostic tests for cancer?
  • Do you cover complimentary therapy like acupuncture or physical therapy?

Another important difference with pet health insurance is that you are still expected to pay for the cost of the veterinary care and then submit a claim, for which you are reimbursed. You can also expect your quote to depend on important factors like your pets age and breed.

Increase your awareness of cancer in pets

The Veterinary Cancer Society has published the following list of signs and symptoms to be aware of with your animals.

  • Abnormal swellings that persist or continue to grow
  • Sores that do not heal
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Bleeding or discharge from any body opening
  • Offensive odor
  • Difficulty eating or swallowing
  • Hesitation to exercise or loss of stamina
  • Persistent lameness or stiffness
  • Difficulty breathing, urinating, or defecating (American Veterinary Medical Association)

If you are concerned about symptoms your animal may be having, take them to your Veterinarian as soon as possible. I always err on the side of caution with my animals. I know that I have to act as their voice as well as their decision maker. This is a tough position to be in as a caregiver of a pet with cancer. Just as with human cancers, earlier diagnosis and treatment CAN make a difference. Take care of yourselves and Fluffy. Our pets are enormous supports, especially when going through a life threatening illness; but they also need our support too.

Learn more about cancer in companion animals on OncoLink’s Veterinary Oncology section.

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