The High Price -- Emotional and Financial -- of Pet Cancer

Pet cancer is on the rise, and that's pushing up the cost of veterinary care.How much is a pet's love worth? It may seem priceless, but it can actually cost a pretty penny. In our case, we spent $1,000 in veterinarian bills -- and even that wasn't enough.

Our story begins a few months ago, when our miniature schnauzer, Ruby, started vomiting. My wife and I figured that her stomach was bothering her because she was eating our cats' food. We took her to the vet, who figured the same thing. But she kept throwing up; nothing seemed to help. Still, it remained only a minor annoyance until a few weeks ago, when she started losing weight an alarming rate. Although neither my wife or I works in the medical field, we knew this was bad.

Our worst fears were realized after a $300 ultrasound, which showed that Ruby had a large tumor in her stomach. It was cancer, and the disease had already likely spread to other organs, including her liver. It was terminal.

My family loved Ruby, but after accumulating some $1,000 in vet bills, we didn't see the point of spending any more money to treat a dying 13-year-old dog. The vets didn't push it, either. In the end, the disease was too much for Ruby and we were forced to put her to sleep. Our story is depressingly common. It's becoming more common all the time.

Pet Cancer On the Rise

Pet cancers are on the rise, partly because companion animals are living longer. The statistics are eyebrow-raising: One study found that almost half of all dogs at least 10 years old die of the disease, Dr. Erika Krick, a veterinary oncologist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, told me.

Some breeds, such as boxers, Labrador retrievers and chow chows, are especially susceptible to cancer. For example, an estimated 60% of golden retrievers die of the disease, according to the Morris Animal Foundation, and the Golden Retriever Foundation is funding a $1 million study of the breed's genetic risk factors for cancer.

Mini schnauzers like Ruby are no more likely to get sick than other dogs. However, stomach cancers like one Ruby had usually are fatal.

Cats aren't exempt either. The rate among cats is probably similar to that of dogs, although no studies have proven this so far, Krick says.

As in humans, environmental factors can play a role. One study found double the lymphoma rates in cats with owners that smoke. Some studies have found indications that purebred cats may have a higher risk of tumors, although there is no consensus on that point, Dr. Elizabeth Colleran, incoming president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners, said in a statement.

Pet Health-Care Bills Also Growing

As the number of pet cancer cases grows alongisde advances in the scientific understanding of the disease, the bills also are mounting up. The ranks of U.S. veterinarian oncologists -- which only number several hundred today -- are growing. And last year, the FDA approved Palladia, the first-ever drug to specifically treat canine cancer.

More cancer treatments are available, and increasingly, pet owners are willing to pay for these treatments instead of automatically euthanizing their suffering animals, according to Tom McPheron, a spokesman for the American Veterinary Medical Association. Some clients are wiling to spend thousands of dollars on chemotherapy, radiation treatments and medicines, many of which are animal-sized doses of human cancer medicines.

But the availability of these expensive treatments means hard choices for many. "It is certainly not the situation where everybody can afford our treatment," Krick says, adding that some financial assistance is available. "Certainly, one very important part of veterinary oncology is the quality of life for our patients. There are certainly cases where the risks (of treatments) outweigh the benefits. It's extremely frustrating."

And, of course, even when owners are willing to spend the money, it doesn't guarantee success. Sometimes animals can be helped, but -- as with people suffering from cancer -- not all treatments are successful.

For Cy Leap, a dog groomer from Dunedin, Fla., money was no object when it came to treating Butch, his beloved smooth-coated chow chow, for bone cancer. He spent about $1,000 on the dog's treatment and would have spent another $4,500 on surgery, but his vet advised him that it would have been pointless. Butch eventually succumbed to the disease.

"It definitely soaks up the money," Leap says, adding that he was willing to spend the money because Butch was "family."

We felt the same way about Ruby.

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Best Fit Pet Sit

Our 13 year old GSD/Collie mix got osteosarcoma, an aggressive type of bone cancer and passed away (with assistance) two years ago. It was such a difficult thing to do, but we knew when it was "time." Her cancer went into remission awhile, and I believe switching her to a raw diet played a part in keeping her alive longer than the vet thought was going to happen. Alive, and living a quality life. It's still red and painful in my heart and we miss her dearly, but we could never hold onto her while she was suffering and in pain for our benefit and out of fear of loss. I only wish humane euthansia were available for humans; that's a nice peaceful way to go out and I don't want to be a rambling and confused senior for longer than absolutely necessary.

January 22 2012 at 2:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
raindrops68

I had the same experience with my former cat, in that he had a tumor and I paid but in the end put him to sleep. We love and cherish our pets and will spend as much as we can afford. It's discouraging to go through. My relief now is that I saved a rescuedfemale cat and enjoy my life with her. Thanks for sharing your story.

December 01 2010 at 7:57 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
GRETA FAYETTE

I know this story well. Our little girl Lucy was given 2 weeks to live with lung cancer. We were not about to go down without a fight. That's when Melanie took matters into her own hands and relentlessly searched for answers. Between her research for cancer treatments and her Mom's passion for nutrition, a formula was born that would give us one more active year with Lucy. Given the results we experienced with Lucy in her last year, this was not something we could keep to ourselves. It was a miracle we knew we would have to share with others. Others who also feel the animals brought into their lives and entrusted into their care, deserve the very best care possible that can be provided. Lucy provided the foundation for our passion to bring the best to those who give us their best every day. This food is amazing actually a Miracle. So we started a dog food business called 'Lucys Miracle' Health food for dogs. We set up our website for contact info go to: lucysmiracle.com

November 30 2010 at 7:20 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to GRETA FAYETTE's comment
stevenmark

All this for just a freebie plug.

November 30 2010 at 10:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Coty

It's not just dogs and cats (we have spent a lot of money on them over the years)that can really run up vet bills but horses as well. A thound pound animal requires massive amounts of medication and attention. Several years ago one of our horses suffered from a "displaced bowel" which required surgery at a cost of $4500 plus dignostic and medication expense of over $2000. Although his value on the market would never be nearly that much we opted to dig in our savings and give him a chance to live. Yes, he and his pasture mates are like part of the family. Well today he is a healthy horse of 15 years of age and patiently gives our grandchildren hours of riding fun. Priceless!

November 30 2010 at 3:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
petwriter4u

I have an 8-year-old yellow Labrador retriever with two different forms of cancer. I also happen to work for VPI Pet Insurance, where I write articles about daily life with pets — cancer treatment. On a personal note, it's encouraging that our pets can receive life-saving treatment for cancer and preserve their quality of life — if caught in time. My dog's cancer surgery this year was approx $2400, during which three cancerous tumors were removed (mast cell and fibrosarcoma). The chance they'll return is likely, so I brace myself for the expenses. The most important factor for me is my dog's quality of life. My Lab is very healthy otherwise and exudes a passion for life that leaves me committed to her well-being. And, she's family, so not treating her is not an option. Does the pet insurance help? For sure, especially with a pure breed whose chances of developing cancer were high (we also have a black Lab who's insured). It's a personal decision on whether or not you want to pay for an insurance premium but we've spent approx $16,000 in combined pet expenses this year (we had another serious pet crisis) and were reimbursed between 66 and 70% of our vet expenses. I got my yellow Lab an insurance policy when she was 3 months old — four years before going to work for VPI. The reimbursements definitely make our pets' healthcare decisions that much easier; it's a relief to be able to take advantage of advanced veterinary treatment and save money in the process.

November 30 2010 at 3:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
firefly0576

My 5 year old chihuahua "yoda" was just dianosed with cancer. My Vet was in shock since he is so young and in great health. He has a very aggressive form of cancer. Chemo is an option but it will not cure it just buy some more time. IS that time for me or for Yoda? Money is not an issue, I can afford the cost but would it be fair to Yoda to suffer? Our vet said he has had some people go the chemo route and he always asked them afterwards if they could do it all over again would they? Not one person said they would do it again. Right not my chihuahua is comfortable on medication to treat pain, but for how long it will work I don't know. When the time comes where medication is no longer working i will have to make the tough choice to do what is right for Yoda. I love this chihuahua so much and he is such a big part of my family life, but I would not want to see him suffer. I guess the ironic part is I also have cancer and it is terminal. Yoda has been there for me thru all my chemo and radiation. Now it is time for me to be with him thru his journey with cancer.

November 30 2010 at 1:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to firefly0576's comment
Jules

My 4 year old chihuahua, Joey, had the same story as Yoda. The cancer hit hard and fast. I struggled with a choice for Joey and best case scenario would have maybe extended his life by 1 year with extensive treatment. I chose to keep him comfortable with pain medications and steroid treatment. He passed away this last August. The family misses him so very much. He was such a good boy. The vet said that they are seeing young dogs with cancer much more often recently... yet no one can explain why. Best wishes to you and Yoda.

December 01 2010 at 9:15 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
glarcombe

My cat Pooder had a tumor on his kidney and my vet referred me to a cancer specialist who told my wife and I that cats do well on chemotherapy. Well my cat went through hell for a few weeks and had to be put to sleep in the end. It was horrible pain for our cat and cost us a lot more heartache and over $5,000. As we later realized some doctors are more business people than healers. Anyone who has a cat or dog, think twice about cancer treatments for them.

November 30 2010 at 12:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
BBFan804

I worked in the Veterinary field and I know pets are just kids with fur on as the Vet I worked for would say! I lost my cat Vango last week after having him for 15+ years and it's hard. The sad thing is people who spend this money are not looking at the whole picture here animals age much,much,much faster then we humans do and yes we are responsible for there food shelter and care but when it comes to cancer and disease in our animals it is and is not the same as humans! First of all if your animal is in there 80's and diagnosed with cancer there body's are much smaller than ours and it is going to spread much faster since its a much smaller body! Second by the time we know there is a visible sign our animal has a cancer it is to late, that means it has spread through out the body by that point! What I have seen is people treating there animals with cancer treatments and all kinds of stuff for selfish reasons because they don't want to let go and the poor animals I believe wholeheartedly they hang on for there owners suffering and in pain because they know and sense there owners don't want to let them go! I watch a cat suffer in PAIN and layed there dying for 2 days before his owner took him to the emergency clinic to stabilize him before the vet opened on a Monday and as soon as we left there he passed away and believe because he knew she could never make the decision to put him to sleep and that she couldn't bear to watch him go on his own! We need to learn from our pets how to be unselfish like they are and give them the dignity they deserve and put them to sleep when nothing can be done instead of inflicting poisonous meds that only delay inevitable. Just remember when faced with cancer in elderly animals 10+years that there probably in there 80's and 90's would you be that aggressive with your parents or grandparents if its gonna diminish there quality of life?

November 30 2010 at 11:55 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to BBFan804's comment
Tistyen

While that may be the case for an older pet, my Siamese Miffy was diagnosed with renal lymphoma at just 2 years old. When it was found, the oncologist said it had probably started 6-8 weeks earlier, about the same time as she got her FVRCP vaccination (although we couldn't get anybody to admit the connection). She had developed a lump at the injection site, but the day we took her to the vet to get the lump checked, there was no power at the vet's office (which they knew in plenty of time to call us and reschedule the appointment, but didn't), so all they could do was poke and prod the lump and squeeze it with calipers. It went down a week or so later, but then she started drinking a lot and turning the cat litter to mud every two days. When we took her to the vet, he told us she was in kidney failure and had to go to a specialist. The specialist discovered the cancer. Since the odds of chemo working for her were good, we agreed to it and got an extra eight months with her. For most of it, she was so healthy that the only outward sign anything was wrong were the shaved patches on her legs for the IV's. A year later, another cat (her successor Galadriel) was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma. Since the oncologist told us that chemo was not an option for her and surgery would be expensive, dangerous, and unlikely to get all the cancer, we opted for palliative care. She was still happy and active for four months. We have a deal with our cats if they become ill: as long as they are willing to fight the disease, we will do everything we can to help them; when they are tired of it, we will help them to go gently and not let them die alone. My current cats are all healthy , but if I were given the same choices for one of them, I would make it again.

December 01 2010 at 1:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
BBFan804

I worked in the Veterinary field and I know pets are just kids with fur on as the Vet I worked for would say! I lost my cat Vango last week after having him for 15+ years and it's hard. The sad thing is people who spend this money are not looking at the whole picture here animals age much,much,much faster then we humans do and yes we are responsible for there food shelter and care but when it comes to cancer and disease in our animals it is and is not the same as humans! First of all if your animal is in there 80's and diagnosed with cancer there body's are much smaller than ours and it is going to spread much faster since its a much smaller body! Second by the time we know there is a visible sign our animal has a cancer it is to late, that means it has spread through out the body by that point! What I have seen is people treating there animals with cancer treatments and all kinds of stuff for selfish reasons because they don't want to let go and the poor animals I believe wholeheartedly they hang on for there owners suffering and in pain because they know and sense there owners don't want to let them go! I watch a cat suffer in PAIN and layed there dying for 2 days before his owner took him to the emergency clinic to stabilize him before the vet opened on a Monday and as soon as we left there he passed away and believe because he knew she could never make the decision to put him to sleep and that she couldn't bear to watch him go on his own! We need to learn from our pets how to be unselfish like they are and give them the dignity they deserve and put them to sleep when nothing can be done instead of inflicting poisonous meds that only delay inevitable. Just remember when faced with cancer in elderly animals 10+years that there probably in there 80's and 90's would you be that aggressive with your parents or grandparents if its gonna diminish there quality of life?

November 30 2010 at 11:50 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
listenhearsound

a animal is like a child. i have spent thousands on strays and my own pets. i just dont understand how we cant all come together and wipe out 1 problem at a time. do you know that it would cost 10 billion to supply the whole world with clean water. yet we spend 450 billion every year at christmas. the only way things will ever change is if we start with ourselves and do everything we can to help others. set a example and others will follow.one more thing about the clean water its called the advent conspiracy please check it out.

November 30 2010 at 11:21 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply