If your dog or cat is diagnosed with cancer, your veterinarian will likely recommend seeing a veterinary oncologist for specialized treatment and support.
A veterinary oncologist is a veterinarian who has undergone many additional years of training to specialize and become an expert in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer in animals. The road to becoming a veterinary oncologist can look a bit different for each individual, but it is a rigorous and lengthy process for everyone.
Similar to human medicine, veterinarians can choose to practice general medicine or specialize in a particular field. General practitioners can be thought of as your family veterinarians and specialists are veterinarians that you would see if your pet has a condition that goes beyond general health and wellness.
Unlike human medicine, specialists within the veterinary field are not further categorized into sub-specialties. For example, in human medicine, an oncologist may focus on only pediatric oncology or hematologic oncology. But in veterinary medicine, an oncologist treats all cancer conditions that affect both cats and dogs rather than specific types of cancer.
Depending on the situation, often your family veterinarian can play a role to help support you and your pet during cancer treatments. If you need an oncologist for your pet, your family veterinarian may recommend one, or you can choose to seek one out on your own, using the website we provide in the next section.
The Benefits of Seeking the Advice and Care of a Veterinary Oncologist
Seeing a veterinary oncologist for a pet cancer diagnosis has quite a few benefits:
- Veterinary oncologists have extensive knowledge and expertise in diagnosing and treating cancer. This specialization means they are well-trained in the latest advancements and treatment options specific to pet cancer, meaning your pet is getting the best care possible.
- They have access to specialized equipment and facilities that allow comprehensive diagnostic tests and other advanced procedures if needed.
- Veterinary oncologists also have a deep understanding of the unique needs and sensitivities of animals undergoing cancer treatment, ensuring that the treatment plan is tailored to the individual pet's well-being.
Overall, consulting a veterinary oncologist ensures that the pet receives expert care and the best chances of a successful outcome in their cancer battle.
How to Find a Veterinary Oncologist for Your Pet
There are approximately 400–500 board-certified veterinary oncologists in the world. The first step is to find an oncologist near you, and you can ask your family veterinarian for any local recommendations. It's also a good idea to search local specialty veterinary hospitals for veterinary oncologists on staff.
You can identify someone who is board-certified in veterinary oncology by the letters DACVIM (Oncology) after their name. You can learn more about veterinary oncology and find a searchable list of board-certified veterinary oncologists on VetSpecialists.com.
Learn more about how veterinarians become oncologists below.
What to Expect When You First Meet with a Veterinary Oncologist
If your dog or cat has been diagnosed with cancer, you will likely find yourself making an appointment with a veterinary oncologist. Some oncologists require a referral from your veterinarian, but others do not, and you can call to make an appointment yourself.
In preparation for the appointment, your oncologist will need all medical records from your veterinarian from the past year. You may also be asked to withhold food from your pet before the appointment in case any procedures are performed during the visit.
If your pet has a medical condition where fasting may not be recommended (i.e., diabetes or insulinoma), please let the vet team know before your appointment.
Your oncology appointment will start with a consultation with your oncologist, during which you will have the opportunity to talk about your pet’s diagnosis. There may be additional diagnostic tests that are recommended, and these may help to either provide a more definitive diagnosis or to determine the extent or spread of the cancer.
The importance of the additional tests is to know whether metastasis (the spread of cancer in your pet’s body) or other concurrent medical conditions are present. This information often dictates what the most appropriate treatments are, as well as your pet’s prognosis (expected outcome with or without treatment).
After the initial consultation and discussion, you and your oncologist will determine what your pet’s plan is moving forward. The next steps can include pursuing additional diagnostic tests to collect more information, or your pet may be ready to start treatment. Treatment is recommended based on your pet’s cancer type, the presence of metastasis, and your personal goals or limitations.
General treatment options for cancer include chemotherapy, surgery, and/or radiation therapy. If chemotherapy is pursued, then your medical oncologist will administer and manage this.
If surgery or radiation therapy is pursued, then you will be referred to a surgeon or radiation oncologist since these are different specialties. However, the role of your medical oncologist is to manage the overall care for your pet, so if you are referred to a different specialist for a specific treatment, like surgery, you should be returning to your veterinary oncologist for continued care and monitoring.
Your medical oncologist will be able to talk through the options that you have, and these may range from a more aggressive approach to a more conservative palliative approach. They will take into account your personal goals and limitations and will help you arrive at the best option for your pet and your family. Ultimately, there is no right or wrong approach, and the decisions are very personal.
In my opinion, the role of an oncologist is not only to treat your pet’s cancer, but it is also to help you navigate through the emotional challenges that the situation may present.
We are trained to provide care and to support our clients regardless of the decisions that are made, and we want to help ease the trauma of cancer for pet owners.
You should find an oncologist that you feel comfortable with and can trust. It is ok to talk with more than one oncologist to find a good fit for you and your pet because, at the end of the day, while we cannot take away the emotional hardship of caring for a pet with cancer, we hope that we can walk through that pain with you so that you aren’t alone.
How Do Veterinarians Become Veterinary Oncologists?
All veterinarians in the United States must complete a four-year undergraduate program and earn a bachelor’s degree, most often a science-based degree (but not always). This is followed by another four years of veterinary school and passing a national veterinary board examination. At this point, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree has been earned and the large majority of individuals will start practicing as family veterinarians. For those who wish to pursue specialty medicine, the path continues.
In my veterinary school class of 120 students, fewer than 10 of us chose to specialize. I had classmates who decided to focus on becoming Surgeons, Internal Medicine doctors, Neurologists, Anesthesiologists, and Pathologists. I was the only person in my class who chose Medical Oncology. Regardless of the specialty, many additional years of internships and residencies come after veterinary school, and these programs are very competitive and difficult to get into.
For a medical oncologist, the first internship is typically a small animal rotating internship. This is a one-year program that involves working in Emergency Medicine, Internal Medicine, and Surgery. This is a hard year. It is the first year out as a doctor and often involves a very steep learning curve without a lot of sleep.
Looking back on that year, I recall being so tired after having worked a long shift (sometimes 20 hours) that I would choose to go to sleep rather than eat. Those were challenging days, but my intern-mates and I would always say, “We can do anything for a year.” Ultimately, I learned a great deal within a short time and it forced me to mature and grow as a doctor. The experience gained during this year is equivalent to 4–5 years of general practice.
After a rotating internship, most individuals can focus more on their specialty. For medical oncology, the next step is often an oncology-specific internship. This is also a one-year program that involves learning about the overall management of a cancer patient. This includes making appropriate recommendations regarding diagnostic tests and whether a patient needs chemotherapy, surgery, and/or radiation therapy. The goal of this year is to become exposed to medical oncology and “get your feet wet.”
The next step is an oncology residency, which is a three-year program. As a resident, you typically have more responsibilities than an intern and have a heavier patient/caseload. In addition to your time on the clinic floor, you are also expected to read multiple veterinary and human oncology textbooks and scientific journal articles and present several seminars throughout the year. Depending on where the residency is done, a research project and publication of a scientific article in a peer-reviewed journal are typically expected. A large part of a residency is also teaching veterinary students, especially if you are in an academic or university setting.
Once all of the requirements of residency have been met, a qualifying board exam and an oncology specialty board exam must be passed to earn credentials. After this, certification is obtained, along with diplomate status and the title Diplomate of the American College of Internal Medicine (DACVIM).