Cancer treatments for pets

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, June 18th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Americans really, really love their pets. In 2018, they spent nearly $73 billion caring for them. That’s according to the American Pet Products Association’s annual report.

EICHER: Most of that was for pet food, but some of that money went for toys and, increasingly, healthcare. Researchers found that the cost of healthcare for pets actually decreased last year—but it turns out that owners are spending more.

Ohio State University in Columbus runs a specialized veterinary clinic for sick animals. WORLD Radio’s Maria Baer went there and she has our story.

SOUND: So this is…Lilah, and Kaly…and Kaly comes here too…

MARIA BAER, REPORTER: Rachel Conwell is sitting in the lobby of the OSU Veterinary Medical Center. This is one of the only integrated veterinary oncology centers in the U.S.

Here, animals are treated for pet cancer with radiation, surgery, or chemo—all under one roof.  

CONWELL: The angst of waiting in a waiting room! Ugh… I still get nervous for your check-ups!

Two blurs of yellow fur dodge in and out of Rachel’s legs. With her own bright blonde hair and a bronze complexion, Rachel is like a human version of her pet companions: Golden Retrievers Lilah, and Lilah’s puppy, Kaly.

Today Rachel is here for a check-up for 9-year-old Lilah. She developed multiple mammary tumors last year. Surgeons removed the tumors and now Lilah gets check-ups every few months to make sure her lymph nodes are clear.

CONWELL: So she’s been doing fine, sounds like…

Rachel answers a few of the vet tech’s questions before Lilah’s appointment. The Conwells are no strangers to the waiting room here. It teems with pet owners and their animals. And despite the dander, the lobby gleams in a fresh coat of white paint.

This building is new, but the center has been open for years.

Last year, another of Rachel’s Golden Retrievers was treated for lymphoma. Samson lived about a year-and-a-half beyond his diagnosis and subsequent chemotherapy treatments. Her other Golden, Barnum, was diagnosed with cancer last fall; but she and her husband decided against treatment.

CONWELL: And so they were like, to make him go through surgery to remove the toe and to try chemo, typically with melanoma it is so aggressive, that it wouldn’t work…

Lilah’s prognosis looks a lot better, and Rachel knows the drill. Soon it’s time for her appointment, which isn’t going to be as simple as sitting on an exam table.

CONWELL: So we have her down for chest radiographs, and then an abdominal ultrasound? And then I don’t know if you all wanna do bloodwork…

A technician leads Lilah back into the treatment room while Rachel agrees to wait in the lobby. Lilah’s tail instantly starts wagging at the site of Dr. Megan Brown. She’s one of OSU’s Veterinary Oncologists.

BROWN: Hey girlie. Can you sit? I Said can you sit? Good job!

Dr. Brown says 90 percent of the pets they see here are dogs. The rest are mostly cats. They do some consulting work on equine cases—and the radiologists are getting ready to treat a horse later today.

But vet cancer treatments actually exist in the U.S. for a variety of unexpected species. Those include birds, ferrets, chinchillas, and even mice.

BROWN: Any species that lives long enough, essentially, can develop cancer. So treatment of cancer, for example, in a bird, there’s…

But OSU’s chemotherapy rooms cater especially to dogs.

BROWN: So here’s our chemo rooms, so this is where all of our  patients receive their chemo treatments. You can see we have these nice, cushy mats… so we want them to be really comfortable and happy…

Some of the medications vets use for pet chemotherapy were developed specifically for animals. But Dr. Brown says the majority are actually human drugs.

That’s because human and dog cancers have striking similarities. Researchers here are starting a clinical trial that will study osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer in dogs to better understand how it affects human children. But unlike human cancer treatment, the goal here isn’t necessarily a cure.

BROWN: For the most part when we’re treating pets with chemotherapy, we’re aiming to prolong their survival but not at the expense of their quality of life. Our patients come in, and they may be 10 or 11 in age, and even if we were able to cure them, they wouldn’t necessarily have more than one, three, five years remaining to live.

That care for the animals’ comfort is clear in every room.

AUDIO: [Sounds of surgery]

In a nearby operating room, veterinary surgeons are removing a baseball-sized tumor from a dog’s liver.

It was a surgery just like this that sent Lilah’s cancer into remission. But that came at a cost. This tumor removal would likely cost close to $4,000. Dr. Brown says chemotherapy and check-ups can cost anywhere from about $300 a month to $400 per treatment. And if it’s done through an IV, that could be a weekly affair.

Rachel has now had three dogs treated here and doesn’t have pet insurance. She estimates she and her husband have spent more than $10,000 so far.

Did that factor into her decision-making process?

CONWELL: No, no, I probably would’ve done anything. It’s crazy. I mean, I’ve heard of people re-mortgaging their houses. I mean, my husband might’ve drawn the line somewhere, but certainly… I’m not sure I would’ve! (laughter)

Despite the investment, Rachel says she understands and respects Dr. Brown’s philosophy of quality over quantity when it comes to treating pet cancer. Still, it can be hard to say no when a place like O-S-U offers a possible solution to what used to be a death sentence.

CONWELL: Because in that moment you want to do anything, you’re like GIVE HIM THE CHEMO, GIVE HIM WHATEVER just to make him live, right? But at the end of the day, if they’re happy, that’s all that matters, and if he’s not happy and not feeling well, you don’t want to do that.

After her radiographs and abdominal ultrasound, Lilah’s doctors have good news: she’s still cancer free. She’ll be back in another few months or so, for another round of tests.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Maria Baer, reporting from Columbus, Ohio.

(Photo/Creative Commons)

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