Followers of the Dogs YYC blog will know that recently we had to say goodbye to a cherished member of our pack. Dozor, our big lug of a Rottweiler-Labrador cross, was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a particularly aggressive form of bone cancer. We had no illusions about how this was going to play out for our big boy and, sadly, we made the decision to euthanize Dozor around the end of April of this year. Pet cancer is a thing that we pet owners seldom think about but it does happen, much more often in a dog’s later years. Much like it happens with our less furry family members, dealing with cancer in a pet is hard to go through. Fortunately, much like cancer in our less furry family members, veterinary research has advanced a lot in the last few decades, giving our fur-kids extra months – or even years – with cancer that would typically be fatal in weeks. Today we want to talk a little more about our experience in the hopes it might help you plan your next steps if your dog ends up with cancer.
Learning While Dealing With Cancer
Dozor started limping and favouring his front right leg sometime in January. It was then that we found a mass on his ankle. We were pretty sure immediately what this was but we were committed to checking it out.
Dozor’s vet, Dr. Chynoweth, was immediately sure that we were looking at osteosarcoma. This is the aggressive bone cancer that inevitably killed Terry Fox despite the amputation. Osteosarcoma can appear in any bone but will show up quite often in the limbs, frequently in the ankle or the shoulder area. Under X-Ray, the affected area may have a combination of rapidly reproducing cells as well as a decaying “moth-eaten” appearance to part of the bone. Obviously, this bone tissue is significantly weaker than regular bone, so much so that a minor injury could result in a crippling fracture or break (pathologic fracture). This type of break will not heal, the only course of action is amputation.
This is another important point to drive home. What Dogs YYC does is arm our readers with information that will help their dog while also appreciating costs associated with something like a course of action in cancer treatment. Larger dogs are more susceptible to osteosarcoma so, if you notice that your dog is acting strangely, particularly showing lameness, an X-Ray is key because it can show what your dog is actually dealing with. Quite often, dogs are treated for a sprain or similar injury and given painkillers when, in fact, the issue is a malignant tumour. The painkillers, in this case, can mask the pain symptoms that will tell you that it’s something potentially more severe.
The Painful Truth of the Biopsy
A biopsy is a test made on slivers of removed tissue to see if cancer cells are present. Of the dozens of cancers that can affect your dog, osteosarcoma can be infuriatingly hard to definitively diagnose. As we found out with Dozor. Dozor’s veterinary oncologist at C.A.R.E. Center in Heritage Meadows, Dr. Larson, reported to us that Dozor’s first biopsy was “non-diagnostic”. This was incredibly frustrating, particularly for a professional like Dr. Larson, because she works with this type of condition on the regular and it is frequently hard for her to get the message across that “No, the pathologist did not find cancerous tissue this time but I am telling you it’s osteosarcoma,”.
Dozor’s main vet, Dr. Chynoweth, explained it to us like this:
“Try to imagine the growth as a large grape and the tumour itself as a pea inside the grape. The biopsy goes into the grape and, hopefully, will get a piece of the pea. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen.”
Another side effect of a biopsy to a bone is that it has the potential of fracturing the bone itself.
We actually did a second biopsy on Dozor. A different procedure called an “ultrasound-guided fine needle aspirate” was used on a hole in the mass. This was where they found the definitive proof Dozor had osteosarcoma.
At the end of the day, we could have given the pathologist an easier job had we allowed them to amputate Dozor’s leg and, had he been younger, we might have done that. This is the only way for a pathologist to get that solid proof right away as they have the whole mass to work with.
Enjoying the Time We Had Left
Some people would have done things a little differently from how we did. For instance, dogs can get by extremely well on three legs. We chose to just make Dozor comfortable – that’s called palliative care – as we felt extreme procedures were too much of a gamble. We know of one case where a Newfoundlander was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in his leg, had the leg amputated, was given chemo, and had to be euthanized four weeks later.
In the end, we just worked with Dozor on a cocktail of pain medications that would keep him as comfortable as possible. It wasn’t long, but we made the best of it. It was the decision we thought was best for Dozor.
You might choose differently for your dog.
Helping Your Dog Live With Cancer
One positive that came from our experience with Dozor’s cancer was learning just how far that veterinary medicine has come in treating cancer in pets. True, treatment will always be a gamble, you don’t know how the treatment will turn out, but that shouldn’t really stop you from trying to help extend your dog’s life from mere weeks to months or even years.
When we chose to “palliate” Dozor, we knew that there was a chance that amputation and chemo alone could give him upwards of 16 months of comfort, love, and active play. In a younger dog, your chances of complete remission are much higher and the odds of metastasis (cancer regrowing in a new location) much lower.
Paying for Cancer Treatment and ACTSS
Cancer treatment in pets is extremely advanced today, and it is very expensive.
What stops many pet parents, we feel, from really drilling down and finding out the cause of their pet’s discomfort is just that: money. This is why we are so heavy on the issue of pet insurance (which we will discuss again in a moment). We do not discriminate against pet parents with less disposable income, particularly with today’s economy, we choose to find options.
One option we discovered as we were walking with Dozor on his journey was the Animal Cancer Therapy Subsidization Society (ACTSS).
ACTSS is a nonprofit operating in Alberta that works to help pet parents cover the costs of cancer treatment. ACTSS was founded in 2001 to achieve this goal and is funded through the Lucky Moffat fund, named after a dog who contracted cancer at a young age. It turns out Western Canada had no dedicated cancer facilities until September 2001.
Today, through that fund, ACTSS helps pet parents afford the treatments – remember, Dozor’s radiation would have cost $12,000 – to combat the dozens of cancers that might ultimately spell the end of many precious lives.
We learned about ACTSS from C.A.R.E. Centre in Calgary and, although we did not elect this path, we wanted to put the information on to you in hopes that it will help you help your fur-kid combat cancer.
Insurance and Cancer: A reminder
It is here that I will remind you of the huge importance of pet insurance. Dozor’s first visit to VCA Forest Lawn to look at his mass was $1,147.40. This was just the beginning. With insurance, we received a little over $300 back because of the deductible BUT this was not the last visit. A policy that pays out by condition and not by visit is very important here. In total, Dozor received over $6,000 of diagnostics to clarify what we were dealing with. We paid a bit over $2,000. Any significant visit to the vet is likely to cost $3,000 to start. It is important to be prepared.
Given Dozor’s advanced age, as a 110lbs dog, 9 is advanced age, we did not choose to amputate his leg or give him chemo. Amputation was going to be upwards of $5,000 and chemo would have been around $1,200 per treatment for 6 treatments. Radiation therapy would have been $12,000. None of these were sure bets so we chose to keep our boy as comfortable as we could.
In the end, none of this is easy. It can be a very hard time for a family, and certainly, it’s a hard time for a dog. Cancer is one of those monsters that affects us all.
If you have a pet with cancer, click the button below and go visit the website of the Animal Cancer Therapy Subsidization Society.
This post is dedicated to the memory of Dozor.