When your pet has cancer

When your pet has cancer

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SINGAPORE- The Big C is a scary diagnosis for pets just as it is for humans.

Moreover, by the time pet owners notice the symptoms in the animals, the cancer has often already spread and is difficult to treat.

“By the time you see swelling, lumps or tumours, feel fluid in the abdomen or the dog stops feeding, most of the time, it’s already too late, the cancer has spread,” says veterinary surgeon Jean-Paul Ly of the Animal Recovery Centre in Serangoon Road.

Mr Lester Kwok, 40, who owns a dive school, fought for almost two years to keep his jack russell terrier, Jill, alive after it was diagnosed with cancer in early 2012. A tumour had developed on its nose.

Although it was removed, the cancer soon spread to its brain and Jill was given a week to live.

Early detection and preventive measures are key, says Dr Ly.

This includes yearly abdominal ultrasounds once a pet reaches nine years of age; feeding pets fresh, home-cooked and unprocessed foods; and good dental hygiene, which will prevent bad bacteria from building up in the mouth and digestive system, and inflammation.

In Dr Ly’s experience, cancer rates are on the rise in dogs and cats.

“Cancer rates have increased 10-fold,” says Dr Ly, 64. “I used to see six to 10 cases a month 20 years ago. Now I see six to 10 cases a day.”

He and other vets say the increase is due to a multitude of factors, including environmental elements such as chlorine-treated water, chemical house cleaners, chemically treated furniture, heavier air pollution, and preservatives and additives in processed pet food. Better diagnostic technology has also allowed more internal cancers to be detected.

Dr Travis Jayson, 35, from The Pet Doctors Veterinary Clinic in Pandan Valley, says that the intensive breeding programmes of purebred dogs here also perpetuates their genetic susceptibility to certain cancers such as haemangiosarcoma, which develops in the lining of blood vessels and is most commonly found around the spleen, right heart base, liver and skin. It is more common in German shepherds and golden retrievers.

Stress is another factor. “We live in a high-stress environment, certainly higher stress today than 10 to 20 years ago, and we pass this stress on to our pets, who are much more sensitive than us,” says Dr Ly.

“Just as in humans, chronic stress causes chronic inflammation in the body, which, over time, can evolve into cancer.”

Common cancers include those of the skin (melanoma), blood and lymph nodes (lymphoma), breast and cancers of the oral cavity and face (squamous-cell carcinoma).

Symptoms vary according to the type and severity of the disease. They include unexplained rapid weight loss despite no changes in diet, sudden changes in behaviour or activity level and growths that may be visible or felt, says Dr Angeline Yang, 27, from Amber Veterinary Practice off East Coast Road.

Treatment options, which include chemotherapy and surgery, depend on the age and health of the pet, and the location and severity of the cancer. They can cost $2,000 or more a month for tests, surgery, chemotherapy and medication. The treatments often last the rest of the animal’s life.

“Maintaining optimum quality of life in the pet is usually the main goal of treatment,” says Dr Jayson.

Financial consultant Corinne Goh, 46, put her 16-year-old Persian cat, Mr Giggles, on steroid treatment when her vet found opaque masses along its intestines, which were suspected to be lymphoma two years ago.

“I did not want a biopsy or chemotherapy because of Mr Giggles’ age. I decided to try high, tapered doses of steroids instead,” says Ms Goh. She also put the cat on a canned food diet and added supplements to protect its liver. It worked. Six months later, an ultrasound revealed that the masses had reduced in size. Today, Mr Giggles is alive and well, and receiving the occasional two-week round of steroids.

Dr Ly offers other options. He puts his patients on a blend of low-dose chemotherapy and immunomodulation – high doses of vitamins, supplements and natural extracts to stimulate and strengthen the immune system, and a low carbohydrate diet to help the body fight the cancer.

The sobering fact remains that once a pet is diagnosed with cancer, chances of a full recovery are slim, despite advances in treatment, say vets.

“According to some studies, there is an 80 per cent remission rate with a median survival time of six to 12 months, and about a quarter to a fifth of animals survive over two years. Less than 10 per cent are cured,” says Dr Jayson.

Dr Ly estimates that 30 to 40 per cent of pets will live beyond a year of diagnosis of serious cancer. Still, many pet owners opt for treatment anyway, despite the dismal odds.

Determined to help his dog Jill fight cancer, Mr Kwok spent close to $100,000 on alternative therapies, such as a cancer-fighting diet of cottage cheese and flaxseed oil, immune-boosting supplements such as shang huang mushroom extract, regular stints in a pressurised oxygen tank, and applying essential frankincense and myrrh oils to Jill’s open wounds to suffocate cancerous cells.

“When your furkid is diagnosed with cancer, you are devastated and will do whatever it takes,” says the bachelor. “Chemotherapy is one of the few options available. Owners rarely think about holistic treatments, about protecting the dog before their body is further damaged by chemotherapy.”

He credits alternative treatments for extending Jill’s life by 11/2 years beyond its diagnosis. Jill was 13 years old when it died in October last year.

Similarly, Mr Jason Ong, 43, chef-owner of Torte restaurant in Waterloo Street, did whatever it took to prolong the life of his five-year-old weimaraner, Kenji. It developed bone cancer in December 2009 in its front leg after knocking into a ladder. The initial bruise developed into a tumour, which started eating into the dog’s shin bone.

Mr Ong first opted for an experimental cryosurgery, where liquid nitrogen is applied to freeze and kill the cancer – a procedure performed by Dr Ly. When this proved unsuccessful, Kenji’s leg was amputated in early 2010 and the dog was put on immuno-boosting supplements.

It was cancer free for a year, until tumours appeared in its lungs. They ruptured quickly and Mr Ong was forced to put Kenji to sleep in June 2011.

He spent more than $20,000 on the treatment, but does not regret a penny. “Kenji was my son and when it’s family, you do whatever it takes. Of course, it was worth it,” he says.

Other pet owners opt for palliative care.

Ms Ng Choong Leng, 50, an executive in her family’s travel business, has provided palliative care to at least four dogs with cancer in the past eight years. She takes in sick and elderly dogs whose families have abandoned them because they are not willing to pay the animals’ medical bills.

They are often referred to her by vets or animal welfare agencies, and she takes them in on a case-by-case basis, depending on whether she has the time and resources to care for them.

“The best that I can do is give them a place that is clean and has good medical care, so they can die in their own time with their own dignity,” says Ms Ng, who is single and lives on a landed property. She pays for their care, which includes surgery, chemotherapy and painkillers, out of her own pocket. Ultimately, the course of treatment is decided by the dog, she says.

“It’s about finding the dog’s comfort zone. What is its quality of life? Has it stopped eating? Is it incontinent? If it is suffering and in pain, then it’s kinder to let it go.”

Source: Asia One

Photo: Straits Times

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