Every day, Cindy Fleischner lines up her crew of cuddly canines for breakfast. As the four other dogs eat, Cindy pulls Katy, her 12-year-old shepherd mix, aside for a peanut butter treat.
Katy is battling lymphoma, and this treat hides her daily dose of chemotherapy drugs. “The other dogs are jealous,” says Fleischner. “But they don’t know the battle she is fighting.”
Katy is not alone in this war. Canine cancer is one of the leading causes of dog deaths. Of the more than 100 million dogs in North America, about two in four will develop cancer, and one in four will die from some form of this dreaded disease. In some purebred dogs, such as golden retrievers, the percentages are even higher.
Adopted from the Denver Dumb Friends League, Katy was no stranger to hospitals. As a licensed therapy dog, she spent many hours at a local hospital, bringing comfort and joy to patients.
However, Fleischner began to notice that Katy — a normally sweet dog — became distracted. “I knew something was not right,” she says.
A physical examination found a growing mass on Katy’s throat. Further testing and surgery would determine that the lump was thyroid cancer.
“Obviously, I was sad,” says Fleischner. “And the whole process of determining the best course of action was so confusing, just making a bad situation even worse.”
After surgery, Katy underwent radiation therapy for the thyroid tumor at Colorado State University. She was able to win this battle, but her war against cancer wasn’t over yet.
Katy was again diagnosed, this time with a lymphoma, requiring more treatments and time with a cancer specialist. Eventually, these treatments saved her life.
Fleischner knows she’s lucky. In her metropolitan area, she had the choice of visiting a veterinary teaching hospital or a specialty center with a veterinary oncologist.
Unfortunately, not all owners are as lucky. Sadly, cancer will claim almost 50 percent of dogs over 10 years old, leaving their owners bewildered and unsure of what to do.
Of the almost 9,000 veterinary specialists, less than 200 specialize in veterinary oncology. In Boston, we are lucky to have veterinary oncologists at New England Veterinary Oncology Group, Angell Memorial Animal Hospital and Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. A new collaboration, however, may help provide some answers — and options.
The Morris Animal Foundation (MAF; www.morrisanimalfoundation.org) has launched the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study in an attempt to stop cancer in our pets with a goal to cure this deadly disease within the next 10 to 20 years. This study brings together research scientists, industry leaders and 3,000 dog-owning households throughout the nation in an effort to eradicate canine cancer.
Each golden retriever enrolled in the study will have all its physical exam results, medical history and lab work sent to the foundation on an annual basis throughout its lifetime by your veterinarian. If surgeries are performed, your veterinarian will enter all results and biopsies into a database. The study can accommodate 3,000 golden retrievers. A candidate for the study must be under the age of 2 and purebred to enroll. If you are willing to commit to annual exams and lab work for the lifetime of your dog, you can log on to the website www.morrisanimalfoundation.org to enroll your golden retriever in the study.
Another immediate priority of the foundation is collaborating with cancer specialists, ensuring that pet owners have access to treatment options and advice. The Morris Animal Foundation will contribute $500 to the medical care of any enrolled golden retriever if cancer does develop.
Already, multiple scientific endeavors are working toward a cure for dog cancer. A canine cancer tissue bank has been created due to a generous $1.1 million donation from Pfizer Animal Health. The Golden Retriever Foundation has promised $500,000 toward research for early detection. This will be money well spent since approximately 60 percent of golden retrievers die from cancer.
This is great news for Fleischner and her dogs. She considers herself fortunate to have great veterinarians, as well as access to cancer specialists. But, “Everyone needs to have options.” She says. “I was lucky — I know sometimes pet owners feel helpless and think that euthanasia is the only option available.”
She happily reports that Katy is doing well with her lymphoma treatments, and her sweet, good-natured personality has returned.
Beyond helping our dogs with new innovative therapies, the Canine Cancer Campaign offers benefits for us, as well. Many breakthroughs happening in this research will help fuel further prevention, treatment and even cures for human cancers.
Remember, there is hope for dogs and their owners — despite a cancer diagnosis. Like Katy, many dogs will tolerate cancer treatments well. The long-term goal of The Golden Retriever Lifetime Study is to help dogs of every type battle cancer. Your veterinarian will work with you, local specialists and national resources to ensure your pet receives the best outcome possible.
Dr. Elizabeth Bradt is a 1986 graduate of Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and the owner of All Creatures Veterinary Hospital in Salem. Email your pet questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please title your email “Vet Connection.”