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2016 AAHA Oncology Guidelines for Dogs and Cats offer hope to pets with cancer

Thanks to advances in veterinary medicine, our pets are living longer. While this is fantastic news, the growing population of older cats and dogs also means that veterinarians are seeing more patients with cancer. That’s why AAHA recently commissioned a task force of veterinary oncology experts to develop a set of guidelines that will help veterinary teams work with pet owners to tailor treatment plans that will maximize not just quantity, but quality of life for pets with cancer.

“We’re trying to give our patients and their families as much good, quality time as we possibly can,” said Barbara Biller, DVM, PhD, DACVIM (Oncology), associate professor of oncology at Colorado State University’s Flint Animal Cancer Center and a member of the oncology task force.

To that end, the 2016 AAHA Oncology Guidelines for Dogs and Cats detail tips for veterinarians for diagnosing various tumor types; determining the stage of cancer; evaluating treatment options such as surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and adjunctive medications; follow-up care; safety protocols; and other considerations for determining the approach best suited to each individual patient.

The guidelines also emphasize the importance of good communication with pet owners. Veterinarians recognize that cancer is a scary diagnosis, and that many people have survived cancer or know someone who has endured the rigors of cancer treatment. However, human cancer treatment differs from veterinary cancer treatment because the goal is tipped toward maximizing quality of life rather than survival.

“Many pet owners are not aware that treatments themselves have a low chance of causing pain or serious toxicity,” Biller said. “The truth is that most of the time, dogs and cats sail through with just very minimal to moderate side effects involved. It’s about quality of life all the way through.”

Additionally, the guidelines stress teamwork among all members of the veterinary staff, as well as pet owners and veterinary cancer specialists. They offer tips to help veterinary teams work together to help pet owners “transition from shock and sadness over a cancer diagnosis to taking an active role in managing their pet’s disease.”

Biller said one way pet owners can be proactive if their pet is diagnosed with cancer is to bring a copy of the 2016 AAHA Oncology Guidelines for Dogs and Cats to start a conversation with their veterinarian and gauge their comfort level in handling their pet’s case.

If a veterinarian doesn’t seem comfortable handling a cancer case, Biller suggests getting a second opinion from an AAHA-accredited veterinarian or consulting with an oncology specialist. Veterinary cancer specialists can be found online with a simple search using the Veterinary Cancer Society’s website.

Biller’s key advice to someone whose pet has been diagnosed with cancer is to find support and stay positive.

“Don’t give up hope. There are almost always things that can be done to help no matter where the dog or cat is in their stage of cancer,” she said. “There are lots of reasons to hope that your animal will have time and do well. Enlarge your team and find out what else can be done to help.”

Award-winning pet writer Jen Reeder is profoundly grateful for veterinarians researching canine and feline cancer cures and treatments.

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