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Published: Sunday, 3/20/2011

Dogs can respond well to treatment for cancer


Dear Dr. Thompson: Our 9-year-old golden retriever developed some swelling under his chin and was starting to slow down. We took him to a veterinarian and all of his glands were enlarged. A needle biopsy was performed and they diagnosed him with lymphoma. We were a bit overwhelmed to hear he had cancer but we were offered some options for treatment and wonder how effective they are and what kind of problems could develop?

Lymphoma is a cancer of a type of white blood cell circulating through the body. Many times the only outward sign is a generalized enlargement of all of the lymph nodes. Those cancerous blood cells localize in these glands and many times all that is needed is a needle biopsy to be examined under the microscope for a diagnosis. It is one of the most common forms of cancer in his breed and hearing that news can be devastating.

Fortunately, this cancer in dogs can respond extremely well to chemotherapy with relatively long remission times. Most of us have experiences with friends or family who have undergone chemotherapy with dramatic side effects and are legitimately concerned about putting their pets through the same treatment. However, the goal for dogs with this disease is to have the best quality of life for the longest period of time during the treatment and many of the drugs used are much better tolerated by dogs.

The best treatment plans involve the use of multiple drugs which are a combination of pills and IV treatments. Many of these have a generic form that helps keep treatment much more cost-effective as well. Most of the time dogs with lymphoma can be in remission or cancer-free within a matter of days of starting treatment.

These drugs are not completely benign and regular monitoring of the infection-fighting white blood cells is needed to prevent them from getting dangerously low. Other problems that can arise are gastrointestinal upset, but dramatic hair loss and nausea is relatively uncommon. A certain level of experience with these medications is also necessary to avoid many other problems that can arise, but many veterinarians can administer most of the more common treatment protocols.

I counsel people who have dogs with this type of cancer that the treatment should never be worse than the disease and if serious side effects develop, in most cases therapy should be discontinued. It is also very important to remember that a number of different options exist and can be tailored to meet most budgets. Most people who elect for chemotherapy for lymphoma are amazed at how well their dogs do throughout and never regret the decision to attempt to treat it. Remember that this cancer can be expected to return at some point, but one to two years in remission is not unusual for the multiple drugs protocols. Good luck.

Questions for Dr. Gary Thompson can be e-mailed to askthevet@theblade.com or mailed to The Blade, Attn. Ask the Vet, 541 North Superior St., Toledo, OH 43660. Dr. Thompson regrets that he cannot answer individual letters.

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