Post originally published Sept. 2017, Updated May 2018
Tips for caring for Pets with Cancer
*This special guest post is courtesy of John Devlin, Owner of Dogsbarn.com
Like humans many pets suffer from cancer and while the news is heartbreaking for owners. The good news is there are steps you can take and some great products that can make your beloved pet more comfortable during this stressful time.
It is estimated 6 million dogs and nearly the same number of cats will suffer from this disease each year. Other pets such as birds, rabbits, and small furries are just as likely to develop the disease. In fact, there are almost 100 types of animal cancers. If you suspect your pet has cancer the first thing you need to do is consult your vet who will be able to conduct tests that will give you a definitive diagnosis.
Signs to look out for include:
- Lumps and bumps
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Difficulty breathing or coughing
- Abnormal smells
- Blood in urine or feces
Once you have received a diagnosis you will then be given the options of various treatments if appropriate which can include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. Once the course of treatment has been decided on you will need to prepare yourself to provide supportive care at home which will include the administration of medications, pain management, keeping your pet comfortable and making sure they have the right nutrition.
You’re not alone
Pets, especially dogs, pick up on the mood of their owner and may interpret sadness as something they have done, which in turn can lead to them becoming depressed. Try to remain as optimistic as possible. Whenever possible try to have fun with your pet. If they are able to play, entertain them a little and give them plenty of cuddles. Remember you are not alone, discuss any worries with your vet. Having someone who is going through the same situation to talk to will help so check out some of the online forums and groups where you will find many others going through the same thing.
It can be difficult to know when your beloved pet is in pain and you will have to observe them closely to recognize the signs. This can be a challenge especially with animals like birds who are adept at hiding pain. But you know your best friend better than anyone and are in the best position to observe any changes in their behavior that could indicate they are in distress.
Keeping them Comfortable
Keeping your pet comfortable during treatment is important as it can help with pain. Items like orthopedic beds for cats and dogs can relieve stress on bones and joints. It is important they don’t have to jump or climb to reach their favorite spot. For smaller animals, you may wish to purchase a cozy snuggle sack or try one of the many heat therapy treatments available. These can be especially beneficial to cats, dogs, and horses. Obviously for pets that love to chew, stay away from electrically heated pads. There have also been studies to show that many animals including birds, hamsters, and rabbits respond well to infra-red, light therapy.
Keep a journal
Why? I hear you as well. Writing everything down means you can keep a record of when you have administered medications, changes in appetite or toilet habits, vet appointments, changes in behavior and side effects. This can be invaluable to both you and your veterinary practitioner. You will undoubtedly be stressed during this time and cannot to be expected to remember everything. Keeping a journal (either with a diary or organizational app for your smartphone) and recording your pet’s day-to-day routine can also help if the worst happens. You will be able to look back and reassure yourself that you did everything possible to care for them at the end.
Nutrition and diet
A good diet is important to keep your pet healthy throughout the different stages of their life, especially if they are ill. It is important to buy the best food you can afford which contains quality ingredients.
While experts do not yet fully understand the dietary requirements of animals suffering from cancer, research has shown that some cancers feed on sugars and carbohydrates. They do not feed on proteins and good sources of fat. With that in mind, it is best to reduce the carbs in your pet’s food and increase protein and Omega-3 fats.
Remember a sick pet will not require as much food as it will have less energy. So it is essential to feed them something that is high in calories and also that is highly palatable, as they may not feel like eating (appetite stimulants may be needed).
There are specialist commercial foods available which you can get from your vet. You can also add some supplements to your pet’s diet. However always discuss this with your vet as some can have adverse effects when taken alongside cancer treatments. Remember if you do introduce any changes to do so slowly so as not to upset the animal’s digestion and cause unnecessary stress.
All cancer treatment will include medications for different reasons. If the animal has undergone surgery drugs will be prescribed for the pain. During chemotherapy medication that destroys the cancerous cells will need to be administered. Cancer itself may result in pain or you may need drugs to combat the side effects of radiation treatment or chemotherapy
Some of these will be administered by your vet, however, the likelihood is you will also have to give drugs to your pet for a period at home. It is essential you get the dosage correct for obvious reasons but the timing is also critical. Making sure the medication is given at the correct intervals can play a vital part in any effective treatment program. You will also need to monitor your pet’s activity, any side effects, and behavior which will help your vet decide if the dosage needs to be adjusted or other changes need to be made.
It is a good idea to keep medications together perhaps in a basket or caddy, mark down when you have administered the drugs and set up an alarm on your phone to remind you when the next dose is due.
Keep stress to a minimum
Many pets feel anxious when visiting the vets which of course, will be often if they are undergoing treatment for cancer and the illness itself can be confusing and frightening. Therefore it is important for you to do everything possible to reduce your friends stress levels.
Make sure the home remains calm. If you have children explain that their pal might not be up for playing games. Make sure your pet has somewhere to retreat to when things get too much. There are many sprays, and herbal remedies that can help calm animals. A blanket with familiar smells is always a good idea for visits to the vet. If you have a dog you may want to consider a “Thundershirt”.
The most important thing to remember is our pets pick up our mood, so treat yourself to an aromatherapy massage or enjoy periods of calm meditation. Not only will you feel the benefit but your pet will replicate your calm energy.
Products that may help
Caring for a sick or chronically ill pet can be challenging both mentally and physically. (Have you ever tried lifting a groggy Newfoundland out of the car?). While not suggesting you spend a fortune on expensive unnecessary items; there are products available that can make life much easier for both you and your furry friend.
For example, a heated cat bed would make your feline friend more comfortable as during cancer treatment as she is likely to be more susceptible to the cold. There are also indoor dog loos if Fido isn’t able to go outside. There are great mobility products intended to keep him moving for as long as possible. A raised food bowl could also be an option to make mealtimes easier and smaller animals may benefit from extra soft bedding to keep them warm.
When it’s time to say goodbye
Unfortunately, not all cancers are curable and you will then have the difficult decision whether to have your pet euthanized or take them home and try to make the time they have left comfortable. There is no wrong decision here so discuss the pros and cons with your vet. The most important thing is the quality of your pet’s life. If you decide to bring your pet home here are some tips to make them more comfortable
- You can forget about specialist foods now. It is unlikely your pet will want to eat much so try to tempt them with their favorite foods. If your cat loves prawns let her have them; if your dog likes Big Macs take a trip to the drive thru.
- Make sure your pet stays hydrated. You can tempt dogs and cats to drink with some low sodium broth. Remember smaller animals may not be up to drinking from water bottles so you may need to hydrate them by hand.
- Pain control is essential and you may need to try various combinations to achieve results. Discuss this with your vet who will know the best drugs to prescribe.
- Accidents will occur so it is essential to prevent urine scald by keeping your pet clean in these areas if they are not able to clean themselves. Use warm water and pat dry gently.
- Prepare yourself and your family for the inevitable. Let them say goodbye in their own way. The grief pet owners feel is very real and should not be dismissed.
Make these last days with your pet special. Talk to them. Take your dog for a drive. Pet your cat; a gentle massage could relieve stress. Play with them if possible, feed their favorite treats and take lots of photos. This is a very tough time and coping with the loss of a pet is something that is hard to get over, but at least you will know you have done your very best for your beloved friend. When it is time to say goodbye, remember all the times they have made you smile and the love you have shared.
More about the author: John Devlin, Owner – Dogsbarn.com
Husband, father and avid dog lover. Currently the proud owner of George a pedigree Golden Retriever that barely leaves my side. However, cute this sounds a little break from the dog hairs every now and then would be nice!
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