Cancer in pets

Dr. Bradt’s newest article for the Salem News regarding lumps and bumps on our pets and what it could mean. It is a great article about her personal experience, and some great tips on how to manage and get through what could be a very scary situation.

What is that Bump on my Pet?

What do you do when you find a new bump on your pet? You know from daily patting of your pet exactly how your pet feels. If you feel something unusual it is time to take your pet to the vet! Your veterinarian will determine if he bump is an enlarged lymph node, an abscess, a benign fatty mass, a hematoma (blood filled pocket) or a cancerous mass. It is important to present your pet to the veterinarian as soon as you feel the unusual bump.

When you have the appointment with your veterinarian your pet will receive a full physical exam and the lump will be examined. Sometimes a sampling of cells, called cytology, will be recommended. Other times a biopsy will be recommended. Sometimes a full excision and biopsy of the mass will be recommended. Your veterinarian will make a recommendation based on the size, color, location, and degree of mobility, sensitivity, and texture of the mass.

A sampling of the cells, or cytology, may reveal that the lump is a benign fatty mass and must be monitored for growth. If a benign mass gets large it may need to be removed. Some masses are so firm that they do not shed cells very well causing the sample to be non-diagnostic, meaning a determination of the type of mass was not possible. Sometimes the cytology indicates a more dangerous growth such as a melanoma or mast cell tumor. In either case your veterinarian may determine that a biopsy is necessary.

A biopsy of the mass is the best way to confirm cytology results and to get absolute answers as to what the bump is. It is a wedge or a core sample from the center of the mass that is usually taken under general anesthesia. It is placed in formalin and sent to the pathologist. A small mass may be completely removed and sent in for biopsy.

At this point, after the biopsy, if the mass is one that is dangerous and can spread either locally by expanding or by metastasizing to the lungs liver and lymph nodes we usually refer our patients to a veterinary oncologist. There are veterinary oncologists at New England Veterinary Oncology Group (NEVOG) and Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and Angell Memorial. A veterinary oncologist has studied several years after the four years of veterinary school to specialize in treating cancer via chemotherapy, surgery, radiation and sometimes vaccination! They are a great resource to discuss the best course of action to treat particular cancers. Some are best treated with a combination of radiation and chemotherapy. Others such as some melanomas can be treated with a vaccine. Others need to be decreased in size before being removed surgically. Each type of cancer may be treated differently with one or more tools the oncologist has in her arsenal.

I recently diagnosed my German Short Haired Pointer, Otis, with a mass on his pituitary gland— a brain tumor that cannot be removed surgically. He had hormonal difficulties with his adrenal gland that progressed to painful pancreatitis, weight loss, tremors, collapse and intermittent seizures. An MRI determined that he had the tumor at the base of his brain. It is dangerous because it expands and releases excess hormones throughout the body. It can also press on the base of the brain as it expands.

My first call was to Dr. Sheri Siegel at New England Oncology Group in Waltham. She knew that the most successful protocol to shrink the mass and buy Otis 1 to 3 years more of a good life was 15 daily doses of radiation.

As an aside I can tell you I was very glad that I had Veterinary Pet Insurance ( for Otis. I did not have the cancer rider but the insurance paid for about a third of the cost of the MRI and the treatment. If I had a cancer rider more would have been covered. . The one company I trust the most is VeterinaryPetInsurance.

The outcome (after many trips around Route 128 to Waltham for 30 minutes of radiation) was pretty much miraculous. Otis gradually changed from a dull sick emaciated dog back to his former enthusiastic bouncy self. He loved the people at NEVOG and couldn’t wait to get in the door even on his last appointment. We will re evaluate an MRI (if I can afford it and insurance will cover some of it) in 3-4 months and see how much the mass has been reduced.

Even if you don’t have pet insurance and do not want to spend beaucoup dollars on your pet it is well worth making an appointment to talk to an oncologist once you have a biopsy diagnosis. You can find out life expectancy, options for treatment with surgery, chemotherapy or radiation. Sometimes there are studies going on for a particular type of cancer and your pet can be included at a lower cost. Other times the treatment is a vaccine that stimulates your pet’s immune system to attach the tumor.

I never thought I would have a dog with a brain tumor. I just covered both my dogs with insurance when I offered the benefit to my employees. Our practice had always encouraged clients to have pet insurance. Now that I have been through it myself I am an emphatic advocate for every pet to have pet insurance so they have a shot at receiving the best care available.