With pets now viewed as part of the family, owners are more inclined to expect oncological treatment in the event of a cancer diagnosis. By Meg Crawford
These days, according to the Australian Veterinary Association, pet owners tend to view their animals as valued, well-loved members of the family, with couples without kids and empty nesters especially prone to elevating them to the role of substitute kids (aka fur babies).
Surveys bear this out, with 85 per cent of Australian pet owners confirming that their pets are part of the family. Taking it one step further, in a recent US national survey, 57 per cent of responders reported that if stranded on a desert island and allowed only one companion, they would choose their family pet.
As a corollary, owners are now more inclined than ever to explore all avenues prior to euthanising their pets in the advent of serious illness or injury, reserving it as the very last port of call.
Correspondingly, there has been a rise in the development of specialist pet services, such as the purpose-built Radiation Oncology Facility at the Small Animal Specialist Hospital (SASH) in North Ryde, NSW, offering revolutionary new services to pets with the aim of improving quality of life, as well as extending it.
For Dr Sandra Nguyen, the head of oncology at SASH, veterinary science and more specifically pet oncology has been a longtime vocation. “I was one of those annoying people who was interested in being a veterinarian when I was tiny,” she says. “I used to save the snails and the lizards out of the yard—‘save’ in inverted commas, when they didn’t really need saving.”
Later, Dr Nguyen seized the opportunity to participate in a summer program at Cornell University, New York, where she met a pet oncologist and realised for the first time that there was a dearth of oncological services for animals in Australia.
Quality of life
“I felt that we still didn’t treat cancer very well in our pets,” she says. “I worked in a clinic on the weekends part-time when I was at uni, so I knew that, generally speaking, cancer diagnosis was essentially a death sentence for the patients.” In contrast, her experience at Cornell demonstrated that pets not only coped but responded well to chemotherapy, thus fuelling her desire to be an oncologist and expand the practice of pet oncology in Australia.
Dr Nguyen notes that while a cancer diagnosis is often still terminal for a pet, it’s become more acceptable in Australia now to treat it as a chronic disease. “Some pets get diagnosed with cancer and they still feel incredibly well. So, rather than treating the diagnosis as the reason to euthanise, we’re talking about quality of life and what we can do to reduce the burden of cancer on the pet. For example, a dog diagnosed with lymphoma, untreated, lives for two to four weeks. If you treat it with chemotherapy, their prognosis is 12 to 18 months, and they can have a good quality of life during that time.”
Finding a cure
Not only is the length and quality of life being extended via oncological services, new developments in the area are allowing for different outcomes. In the past, a soft tissue sarcoma on a limb generally led to an amputation, resulting in a cure. But with the advent of specialist radiotherapy services, such as SASH’s Veterinary Linear Accelerator, a sarcoma can be treated with an excision and radiation therapy, with no necessity for amputation—an outstanding outcome, especially for young pets.
“Rather than treating the diagnosis as the reason to euthanise, instead we’re talking about quality of life and what we can do to reduce the burden of cancer.”—Dr Sandra Nguyen, SASH
Dr Nguyen says the shift in how pet owners view their pets has influenced them in terms of the treatments they are prepared to consider for their animals. “It’s not even just that people are now more willing to explore those other treatment options; to me it’s almost like they expect them,” she reflects. “The expectation of the client is now such that we will treat their pet as a family member to the best standards there can be.”
While SASH has had a dedicated oncology department since 2011, its Veterinary Linear Accelerator—the only one of its kind in Australia—only became available earlier this year. Unlike humans receiving radiation therapy, pets can’t lie still for treatment. Accordingly, when the initial CT scan is undertaken in order to plan the radiation therapy at SASH, the pet is anaesthetised and placed in a bag, from which all of the surrounding air is sucked out, creating a mould of its body. In subsequent radiation treatments, the pet is anaesthetised again and returned to the mould, ensuring they are in precisely the same spot every time.
Treatment time is short—a pet will be anaesthetised, treated and awake within 30 minutes. The course of treatment ranges from two doses for bone cancer and pain, up to 20 doses for brain cancers over a four-week period, while palliative care treatment ranges between two and five weeks.
While pets may suffer from dermatitis as a result of radiation therapy, it is usually healed within two to four weeks. Also, the fatigue that humans experience as a consequence of radiotherapy is minimal in pets.
Dealing with tough times
The cost of radiotherapy treatment at SASH depends on the type of cancer being treated and the outcomes being sought. For instance, a palliative protocol costs in the vicinity of $6500, while a definitive treatment protocol is in the vicinity of $13,000. Pet insurance, depending on the policy, may cover up to 80 per cent of the cost, up to a certain cap, and in Dr Nguyen’s experience, no claim to date for radiotherapy services at SASH has been rejected.
While the field of pet oncology can be heartbreaking, Dr Nguyen is heartened knowing that pets tolerate oncological treatment so well, and that it genuinely improves their quality of life.
“I think I’m blessed to be able to help people through this tough time and help the pet feel better, which is why I do it. Some of my clients say to me, ‘Should I be doing this; am I just torturing them?’, and I think, ‘That’s not why I’m doing this job’. I do it so that they feel better, and they truly do.”