What to Do After Your Pet's Cancer Diagnosis

Author: Julie Song, DVM, PhD, DACVIM

Published: February 14, 2024

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yellow lab with owner at veterinary officeCancer is triggering for everyone, and a cancer diagnosis for your beloved pet can elicit a storm of emotions, including shock, fear, helplessness, sadness, and anger.

If your dog or cat has been diagnosed with cancer, you may experience a sense of loss, grief, and mourning. These can take quite a bit of time to process, but it is often during these times of stress that difficult decisions need to be made.

I believe that one of the strongest and most crippling emotions after a cancer diagnosis is fear of the unknown. I’ve seen this many times in my clients. There are so many questions without answers and an unclear path forward. It can be hard to know who to turn to for help.

Most clients receive a cancer diagnosis from their family veterinarian, and this is often a good place to start. Many veterinarians can help establish a diagnosis, perform additional diagnostic tests, and give general recommendations regarding steps moving forward. One of those recommendations should include a referral to a veterinary oncologist for more information.

Connect with a Veterinary Oncologistpet owner speaking with vet tech dog in lap

A veterinary oncologist is a veterinarian who has undergone many years of additional training to specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer in animals. Veterinary oncologists manage only cancer patients and can help guide you through the process of identifying the most appropriate tests to perform, interpreting the results, and helping choose the best treatment options.

Learn more about veterinary oncologists here.

Ask your veterinarian for local oncologists they’ve worked with and recommend for your pet. Another way to find a local oncologist is to search for one at a specialty hospital near you. You can also easily search online as well, using the VetSpecialists.com directory.

I believe it is always beneficial to speak with an oncologist when dealing with cancer for your pet. Veterinary oncology is a nuanced specialty, and there are a variety of different approaches and new treatments available.

Plus, speaking with an oncologist to learn as much as you can about your pet’s diagnosis can itself be very valuable — this can help ease fear of the unknown. I have had many clients walk into their consultations feeling anxious, confused, visibly shaking, and ultimately walking out feeling more at ease with a clearer sense of how to move forward.

The knowledge gained allows you to make the best decisions for your pet and your family and formulate a plan. Your first appointment with an oncologist is when you meet a team of providers who are there to support you. Whether you decide to do everything you can to treat the cancer or to focus on comfort care with the time that you still have with your pet, your oncologist can help you through it. 

Questions to Ask Your Veterinary Oncologist

Everyone is a bit different in terms of how to prepare for their pet's first oncology appointment. Some clients want to come as a blank slate, and others want to do research beforehand and ask their oncologist more specific questions. Most oncologists will be able to guide the conversations so that you have the information that you need, but general questions that should be addressed include:

  • What is my pet’s diagnosis, and what does it mean?
  • Do we need to perform additional tests to collect more information?
  • What are my pet's cancer treatment options?
  • What is the prognosis (likely outcome) for my pet?
  • What are the signs and symptoms of my pet’s cancer or things I need to look for in the future?
  • What are the signs of pain/discomfort, and how do I evaluate quality of life?
  • How do I know when it is time to say goodbye to my pet and consider humane euthanasia?

vet tech holding a cat in her arms

Make a Plan

Your oncologist will help you make a plan regardless of the treatment option that you choose for your pet. The plan may include a schedule for recheck appointments and/or when the next treatment is due. It can also include referrals to other specialists, like surgeons or radiation oncologists.

If the plan is to keep your pet as comfortable as possible for the time that they have, this should include how to evaluate quality of life and when to consider humane euthanasia. However, it is also important to communicate with your oncologist what your goals and limitations are so that they can adequately provide you with the guidance that you need. 

Get Extra Support

As important as it is to seek the guidance of a specialist in the cancer field, it’s also important to look to other sources of emotional support. Often, a family veterinarian who has known you and your pet for years can be a great person to check in with. The benefit of talking with your veterinarian is that they have the medical background and have known your pet for a long time, potentially through other medical conditions that you’ve had to face.

Friends and family are additional sources of support that can be invaluable. They may have had experiences with their pets and cancer. Keep in mind that not every cancer is the same and that one person’s experience may not be representative of what your pet is facing.

A therapist is a wonderful person who can help you sort through some of your thoughts and emotions, and they can do so from a non-judgmental and non-biased place. Some of my clients also find benefits from joining online support groups but know that it can be difficult to evaluate the sources of the many opinions that are posted online. An online support group to check into is the Fetch a Cure Pet Cancer Support Group – held every 3rd Thursday of the month via Zoom. I don't have personal experience with this group, but it might be a good starting point for you.

woman snuggling with Beagle

Ultimately, it’s important to find whatever form of support is most helpful to you, and this can look different for everyone. But one key component to effective support is to know and feel that your emotions are valid and that they are understood. 

Your pet is not only a member of your family, but they are your best friend, too. During your journey with them, you want to know that you did the best you could on their behalf and look back at the love and beautiful life you shared. So, the best you can do is to simply love them every day.

Make the most of each day. Do the things that they love and whatever brings them joy; give them the extra cookie, buy a bulk supply of squeaky toys, and snuggle in bed for an extra 30 minutes in the morning. Make a bucket list, create new memories, and take all the photos. Celebrate their birthday or gotcha day, even if that means you celebrate three months early. Who says you have to wait to celebrate these meaningful milestones? As a veterinary oncologist, in my humble opinion, this is the most important thing that you should do after you receive a cancer diagnosis for your pet. 

Sookie's Cancer Story

One of Preventive Vet's staff members recently went through a cancer diagnosis with her 13-year-old Cardigan Corgi. Here's her story:

"We first noticed a small lump under Sookie's front leg in her armpit. Sookie has some other lumps and bumps that are benign and a normal part of aging, so we didn't give it much thought at first. But it grew quickly, so we sent our general veterinarian a photo and set up a fine needle aspiration biopsy.

Sookie Cancer Lump pre-opThat first biopsy came back negative for cancer, but due to the location of the lump and its fast growth, our veterinarian recommended surgical removal and a full biopsy post-op to fully rule out cancer.

A veterinarian at our regular clinic removed the lump and sent it out to a pathologist for review. It came back as carcinoma in the apocrine gland (sweat gland).

We were immediately referred to a local specialty veterinary hospital for an oncologist consult, where we met with Dr. Song. It was reassuring to have someone with extensive knowledge of pet cancer and the different treatment options available for Sookie's type of cancer.

Sookie cancer tumor post-opDuring our first appointment, Dr. Song went through the different chemotherapy options based on the surgical removal margins of the tumor. I had no idea that there were different options for chemotherapy and was grateful to learn more about the differing effectiveness, risks, and side effects. This was especially important to me as I have another dog at home that I didn't want to expose to chemotherapy drugs.

We chose to do two rounds of electrochemotherapy for Sookie, and since then have continued to monitor her blood work and get regular x-rays at Dr. Song's office to watch for any reoccurrence.

Overall, I'm so happy to see Sookie's recovery and witness the change in her energy level and personality since treatment. Having a veterinary oncologist available to guide me through the process was priceless and made me feel informed and empowered to make the right choice for us.
Sookie in kiddie pool

About the author

Profile picture for Dr. Julie Song

Julie Song, DVM, PhD, DACVIM

Dr. Julie Song is a veterinary medical oncologist and scientist. She grew up in the Chicagoland area and completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry. She then earned a PhD in Pharmacology at the University of Illinois in Chicago, where she studied molecular biology in a human cancer lab. During that time, her dog, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Wally, had gotten ill which inspired her to go to veterinary school.

Dr. Song was accepted into veterinary school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and completed her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree in 2014. After a small animal rotating internship in Chicago, she was matched with the medical oncology internship at Washington State University in Pullman, WA. She then stayed at WSU for her medical oncology residency.

Dr. Song currently practices medical oncology at a specialty hospital in the Seattle, WA area. During her free time, she enjoys being active and is an avid runner. She also does her best to squeeze in some hiking, pickleball, ping pong, yoga, cross-country skiing, concerts, and traveling. She also loves to cook, is mindful of nutrition, and focuses on a more holistic and balanced approach to health and well-being. She has a scruffy terrier mix named Pippa, who was adopted during her time at WSU. Pippa is a wild and free-spirited critter who sprinkles joy and love everywhere she goes!