It’s the morning of Dec. 24, and Pete and Peggy Yarger have brought their 5-year-old Alaskan malamute Mackenzie for treatment at the Northeast Indiana Veterinary Emergency and Specialty Hospital in Fort Wayne.
The dog has cancer. And while a few years ago, that would have been a sad way indeed to spend the morning of Christmas Eve, today they have reason for hope.
Lying on his side on a blanket, Mackenzie is getting his next-to-last chemotherapy treatment through an intravenous line in his back leg.
In about 15 minutes, the session is done, and the dog, wearing a little melon-colored bandage, bounds to his feet and smothers his attendants with canine kisses.
His heart and lungs sound good. His belly seems good, says Dr. Amy Totten, a board-certified veterinary internist supervising the silver-furred canine’s care. He’s doing excellent.
Pete Yarger says that only goes to show how far things have come in just a few years.
This isn’t our first go-round with cancer, he says, adding that a previous malamute named Buddy died of the disease. That was awful, he said.
These days, a cancer diagnosis doesn’t automatically mean a pet must suffer or be immediately euthanized, Totten says.
Although not all canine or feline cancers can be cured or treated, she says, for some pets, options include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, immunological and nutritional support and advanced pain management.
Many times, the therapies can extend a quality life for pets for months or even years.
For Fort Wayne pet owners, some advanced treatments are now closer to home. Fort Wayne still lacks a veterinary oncologist, Totten says, and pets needing one are usually referred to Indianapolis or Purdue University’s specialty clinic in West Lafayette.
But at the facility where she works at 5818 Maplecrest Road, pets can have surgery to remove tumors and receive chemo. It’s the only area practice to provide those services, she says.
The services are in demand. Totten says about one to three cancers are diagnosed each week, and about one quarter to one half get some treatment. Estimates are that one in four dogs, and one in two dogs over age 10, will succumb to cancer.
Although it may seem as if the cancer incidence is going up, that’s partly because pets are living longer because of more committed owners and better veterinary care, says Dr. William Chastaine of Aboite Animal Hospital in Fort Wayne. Vets also have more diagnostic means at their disposal to detect cancer, Chastaine says.
We, unfortunately, do see a lot (of cancer) in our senior pet population, he says. One of the dreaded things about veterinary medicine is doing a routine exam and finding something that turns out to be cancer. It’s not fun.
It’s scary for pet owners, he adds. It’s an emotional time for them, depending on the prognosis, because pets are so much a part of people’s families. I just try to be compassionate and honest and not withhold the truth from them.
Totten says pets get cancer for reasons that are unclear. But they include genetics, hormonal and environmental factors including exposure to sun and toxins, and viruses. Vaccines, food additives, unintended drug exposure and drug interactions and even stress are also being investigated.
Pets can get cancer at any site where people can get it, although some spots are more common than others, Totten says.
Probably the most common cancer we see is dogs who have cancer in their spleen, she says. We probably see at least one a week – there’s definitely an increased frequency in that problem.
Lymphoma is another common cancer in dogs and cats, with the latter prone to intestinal manifestations. Lung and liver cancers, brain cancer, bone cancer, mast cell cancer and melanoma (skin cancer) are also found in pets. Pets also can develop breast cancer, though less commonly than humans; it’s been linked to late neutering.
One problem for pet guardians and their doctors, Totten says, is that the diagnosis often sneaks up on them. After all, pets can’t talk – and they often don’t otherwise complain or show signs they’re sick.
When they’re ill or in pain, Totten says, animals are good at hiding it. In the wild, a sick animal may be abandoned by its pack or quickly end up as prey. Their instinct is to act as if they’re just fine, she says.
But pets with cancer do show general signs, she says – lethargy, weakness and tiredness. They may vomit or stop eating or have unusual bodily discharges.
Some cancers have specific signs. A lymphoma or mast cell cancer can show up as a lump or series of lumps. And if a dog has cancer of the spleen, it may rupture and bleed and fill the abdomen with fluid, making it tender and swollen.
Such signs shouldn’t be ignored, because, as with humans, earlier diagnosis often foretells longer survival, Totten says.
For the Yargers, the first sign was blood in Mackenzie’s stool. He was diagnosed with a colorectal tumor, which turned out to be B cell lymphoma.
The tumor was surgically removed, and the dog underwent a chemotherapy regimen known as the CHOP protocol developed by the University of Wisconsin veterinary school.
Totten calls the treatment, which is given once a week for eight weeks and then once every other week for eight more treatments, probably the most well-known lymphoma protocol that there is.
It uses three drugs – vincristine, cyclophosphamide and doxorubicin – and is generally well tolerated, Totten says.
The Yargers, residents of Hamilton, say their dog, adopted from a rescue organization, tends to be a little tired after treatment, but he bounces back.
Peggy Yarger says Mackenzie’s chemo is being augmented at home with medication and nutritional supplements designed to boost the dog’s immune system, which is depressed by the treatment.
The dog also gets a special diet of organic foods prepared by Peggy, who says she’s not above making the pet poached-egg snacks.
The idea is to help his own body fight the cancer, she says.
Not every owner of a pet with cancer chooses to treat it, Totten says.
The most common reason is people don’t want to put their pet through that, or the pet is already elderly. But budget definitely comes into play, she says, adding that lymphoma testing and treatment on the CHOP protocol averages about $5,000.
Most owners do not have pet insurance, she says, and while she knows of some national organizations that help with pet cancer costs, she’s not aware of any local group with that mission.
Still, lymphoma is one of the canine cancers considered most responsive to chemotherapy, Totten says.
About 80 percent of dogs with B cell lymphoma treated with the CHOP regimen go into remission.
Typically, survival time ranges upward from 12 months, including the time the dog spends in receiving chemo, she says.
Chastaine says he’s seen cases where a dog with lymphoma lived between two and three years longer because of treatment.
That may not seem like a long time, but when you consider a dog’s normal lifespan, and considering those are dog years, that’s pretty good, he says.