A survey from the Pet CancerCare Alliance provides insight into pet owners' attitudes about cancer and how likely they are to pursue treatment. (Sponsored by VCA)
An estimated 6 million dogs and an additional 6 million cats are diagnosed with cancer each year, according to the Animal Cancer Foundation.1 While the disease types, stages, and treatments vary, the shock and grief doting pet parents endure is universal.
Delivering a cancer diagnosis is a delicate balance between reality and compassion; a challenging but all too common part of the profession. Thankfully, oncology research, diagnostics, and treatments have advanced tremendously over the last decade, offering opportunities for cats and dogs to maintain a high quality of life.
“At a high level, oncologists are learning how to tailor care to each patient,” Karen Oberthaler, VMD, DACVIM (Oncology), who practices at VCA Veterinary Specialists of Northern Colorado, tells dvm360®. “We are always learning more about individual cancers and subtypes of cancers, and that helps us finetune our treatments. Today we can take samples and test a patient’s own tumor to learn what receptor it has and personalize the treatment to that one individual.”
Veterinary professionals are familiar with the research, data, and firsthand experiences that prove a cancer diagnosis is not always a death sentence. But how do the clients perceive a cancer diagnosis?
To provide insight into pet owners’ attitudes about cancer—and how likely they are to pursue treatment—the Veterinary Centers of America (VCA) released results from its “Pet Owner Perception of Cancer in Pets” study. Conducted by Trone Research and Consulting on behalf of VCA’s Pet CancerCare Alliance, the survey was completed by 1925 pet owners, allowing for 95% confidence with a margin of error of plus or minus 5.
Nearly all (90%) of the pet owners who took part in the survey recognized that dogs and cats could develop cancer. They also identified cancer as one of the top 3 threats to their pets’ health, behind arthritis/joint issues and heart issues. However, when it came to their respective pets, more than half of respondents (59%) said it was unlikely their pet would eventually develop cancer.
Statistically, the Veterinary Cancer Society estimates that 1 in 4 dogs and 1 in 5 cats will develop cancer. To better understand how pet owners might respond to a veterinary cancer diagnosis, the survey posed questions specific to the balance between quality of life, costs of care, and exhausting the medical options to extend a pet’s life.
Respondents were asked to assume their pet recently received a cancer diagnosis. An overwhelming majority (74%) indicated they would do everything possible to make their pet comfortable. But that did not always include moving forward with treatment. Just over one-third (35%) of respondents said they would do whatever their veterinarian recommended regardless of the financial commitment. Similarly, 38% said they would spend any amount to save their pet’s life. More commonly, respondents said they would have to weigh the decision between their pet’s quality of life and length of life (67%).
When pressed about cancer treatments, two-thirds (66%) of pet owners believe cancer treatment is cost-prohibitive. In addition to the financial components, 45% of pet owners said cancer treatment would be painful for their pet, and 43% believe cancer treatment would cause their pet experience adverse events.
“[It] really interested me that 50% of people thought that the veterinary oncologist would cause pain and suffering in treating their pets," Dr Oberthaler admits. “Ouch! Our goal is always to make that pet feel better, not worse. We do talk about that all the time in consultations, so I know it’s a concern for pet owners. Still 50% is higher than I wish it were. Clearly, we have more client education to do about how we approach veterinary cancer care and about how well pets tolerate the protocols.”
After reviewing the responses, VCA believes the stats are a positive indication that clients are not completely unprepared to face this difficult conversation. However, there is still plenty of work to be done to help bridge the knowledge gap. “There’s a stigma about cancer treatment, which is clear in the study,” Dr. Oberthaler explains.
Pet owners place trust in their veterinarians to provide the best care for their furry family members, and there are actionable items hospitals can implement to ensure clients make informed decisions.
Remember that as well versed as your veterinary team is on the commonality of cancers and the incredible strides that have been made in treatment protocols, this is an uncharted, scary realm for clients. Recognizing clients’ fears and concerns about diagnosis and treatment can better prepare veterinary professionals for these difficult conversations.
For instance, although 89% of pet owners were aware that specialty oncology services exist, they don’t have the knowledge or experience to know that pets experience far fewer adverse effects (AEs) than human patients undergoing cancer treatments. Most individuals equate cancer treatments with hair loss, severe nausea, pain, and exhaustion. Convey to clients that veterinary oncologists administer lower doses of drugs, generally provide medications at less frequent intervals, and do not combine as many drugs as in human protocols. Many of the most common AEs animals experience, such as mild nausea and a decreased appetite, can often be treated with supplemental medication.
“So many people have had a friend or family member battle cancer, and they are imagining their pet will have the same experience. But cancer treatment in pets is far less painful and more affordable,” says Zachary Wright, DVM, DACVIM (Oncology), chair of the VCA Pet CancerCare Alliance.
Finances will always be a top concern when it comes to veterinary care. “I acknowledge that cancer treatment can be expensive, but I also let clients know that the specialist will talk to them about their situation and the flexible finance options they may not know exist,” says Lollie Mensik, DVM, co-owner of Country Creek Animal Hospital in Allen, Texas.
Above all else, practice patience. This information can feel overwhelming and your clients probably were not expecting their pet to receive this diagnosis.
“I think people expect me to tell amazing stories about pets who are cured. And I do have stories like that. But some of the best success stories for me are pets who came in very sick or with family members who were very scared—and we did something to make their time together better. I know we’re conditioned to think that a cure is the win. But sometimes it’s a win when we know we really made a difference. Success to me is a comfortable, happy animal and a family that’s less stressed and feels confident that they know what to do for their beloved pet,” says Dr Oberthaler.
Pet owners have spent years developing relationships with their pet’s veterinary teams. They will look to their general veterinarian for guidance on what next steps are after a cancer diagnosis. Be prepared to offer professional suggestions.
As with any medical decision, knowledge is power. Help your clients assemble the tools they need to make the right decisions on behalf of their pets by encouraging them to read reputable reports and meet with a specialist for a consultation. “They do not have to move ahead with treatment,” Wright says. “And they walk away knowing they have all the information. They’re armed to make the choices they think are right for their pet.”
But sometimes, a referral is the right course of treatment. “Offering a referral to a specialist is never the wrong choice,” Mensik says. “I’ve never had a client come back from a consultation and say that getting more information was the wrong thing to do.”
A veterinarian’s job does not end with a diagnosis and referral. It is imperative that the pet’s veterinarian works in tandem with the client and specialist to provide a comprehensive level of care.
“Regular back-and-forth communication keeps us on the same page, so there is always a unified message to the pet owner. We all want the same thing—we want to do our best for the pet,” says Wright.
Mensik says that when she makes a referral to a specialist, she calls the specialist in advance of the client’s appointment or consultation.
“I give the specialist a call so they have a heads up and tell them where I am so far. I ask if there’s anything else I should have done or known, so I can learn and help clients even better in the future.”
Bottom line? “More communication helps us stay on the same page.”