Finding out that your beloved pet has cancer can be a very difficult and anxious time for any owner. So it’s reassuring to know that there are vets who are specially trained in treating this frightening disease. Veterinary cancer specialists, or Oncologists, have undergone a specialist programme of training and study; learning the latest treatments and techniques to diagnose and treat cancers in animals. Most veterinary oncologists mainly treat cats and dogs who have been referred by their regular veterinary surgeon.

Why might my pet need to see a specialist?

Whether or not your pet needs to be referred to a specialist following a cancer diagnosis will depend on a number of factors. General practice vets also have training in this area. For many kinds of skin tumours and some other common cancers, your own vet may be able to diagnose and treat your pet at your normal practice. They can perform surgeries and are also able to offer therapies such as chemotherapy and other treatments. 

Your vet may, however, recommend your pet be referred to a specialist for certain forms of cancer. And you are of course entitled to request a referral at any point should you so wish. One reason for referral may be an animal who is suspected of having cancer but the diagnosis is unclear. They may be referred for further examination and more complex testing. Other common reasons for referral to a specialist include unsuccessful initial treatments, complex surgical or medical treatments, or cancers that recur. Your pet would also need to be referred if they needed radiation therapy. This is because it requires specialist knowledge and equipment which in the UK is strictly regulated.

Who will be involved in my pet’s treatment?

If your pet is referred there are often other specialists, or at least other experts in their field, involved in their treatment in addition to oncologists. Imagers may be involved in the diagnosis and ongoing monitoring of their condition. Referral level surgeons may be involved if the cancer can be removed surgically. If certain organs are affected such as the eye or nervous system, then experts in these areas will usually be involved in your pet’s treatments. Not forgetting the dedicated teams of nurses and other support staff who will help to care for your pet when they are poorly. For this reason many oncologists are based within large multidisciplinary referral centres. 

Is it right to try and treat cancer in pets?

It is important to understand some of the main differences in treatment of veterinary patients compared with human cancer sufferers, in order to decide whether referral and intensive cancer treatments are right for your pet. 

In veterinary medicine it is important to take into account an animal’s understanding of what is happening to them. And, most importantly, both their long and short term quality of life. In human patients, especially those undergoing aggressive chemotherapy protocols, severe side effects are often tolerated in the hope of a long term cure. In our animal patients we tend to be much more mindful of these side effects. 

For this reason our treatment protocols tend to be less aggressive, in order to maintain their immediate quality of life. This does sadly mean success rates in terms of cures for certain types of cancer may lag behind our human counterparts, but it prevents unnecessary suffering. 

Should I try and get an oncology referral for my pet?

Other factors that need to be taken into account when deciding whether to refer a pet to a veterinary oncologist may include the costs involved. These can be substantial especially for some of the newer and more sophisticated treatments. Some expenses may be covered by insurance, if the pet is insured, but even this may not cover everything. In some areas of the country, travel times and availability of specialists need to be considered. It is also important to consider a pet’s temperament. How will they cope with regular veterinary visits, injections and other invasive procedures? There is also a substantial time commitment on the part of the owner as a number of treatment protocols require regular visits to the referral centres for therapies and monitoring such as blood tests. 

If your pet is diagnosed with cancer and you would like to consider referral to a Veterinary Oncologist then speak to your usual vet. They will be happy to advise on whether your pet would benefit from specialist care and what is available in your area. We all hope our pets won’t need them. But it’s reassuring to know these specialist vets are there if they ever did. 

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