Vets performing surgery

A cancer diagnosis for a pet can evoke many different feelings: denial, sadness, anger and possibly even guilt.

But in your animal’s hour of need, you need to focus in order to make major health care decisions on your pet’s behalf. One component of the decision-making process involves asking your veterinarian 10 key questions about the diagnosis and your treatment options.

Another part of the process requires you to ask yourself some tough questions when your pet gets the big cancer diagnosis.

1. Should I Agree to the Tests Being Recommended?

Once a diagnosis of cancer is made, testing to evaluate the extent of the tumor, and its potential for spreading, is usually recommended. If you think that you may want to treat your pet’s cancer, say yes to testing.

But if you already know that treatment isn’t a good fit for you and your pet — say, if your pet has other serious medical issues or gets stressed out just by being in the car or a carrier — additional testing isn’t necessary. And if you just want to assess how bad the situation is, testing can help your veterinarian speculate as to how much time your pet has left.

2. Is This Treatment Right for Me and My Pet?

Every pet I have the privilege of caring for has special qualities. Unfortunately, not every animal feels the same way about me. If trips to the veterinarian put your pet in a tailspin, an intensive cancer treatment protocol may not be what the doctor should order, so be sure to have a discussion with your vet about this concern.

3. Do I Have Time to Take My Pet for Scheduled Treatments?

The most common tumor that veterinary oncologists treat with chemotherapy is lymphoma. The current standard of care for this cancer calls for 26 weeks of chemotherapy, and during the course of those six months, 16 chemotherapy treatments are administered.

Although this is the best current treatment plan, not every family can squeeze so many extra veterinary visits into their lives. Since protocols are different for every type of cancer, make sure that you understand the anticipated time commitment — and decide whether you can stick to the required schedule.

4. Can My Pet and I Cope With the Potential Side Effects?

When testing is complete, your pet’s veterinarian will offer treatment options. Each one carries not only a different prognosis — a doctor word for expected outcome — but also different possible side effects. Ask yourself how you’d feel about hospitalizing your pet if there was a serious treatment complication, as well as how your pet would respond to hospitalization.

5. Can I Afford the Treatments?

The veterinary oncology team, the chemo group, the surgical staff and the radiation therapist can all give you expected costs for the treatments they are proposing.

What they can’t do is anticipate the cost of managing any side effects, so you need to consider the impact an unplanned hospitalization could have on your budget. Your pet’s oncology team will be honest with you about expenditures — and you need to be equally honest with the team about your finances, so they can allocate your pet’s health care dollars effectively on the most important tests and treatments.

6. What Quality of Life Do I Want for My Pet?

Owners and pets who are in sync believe that every moment spent together is a gift, which is why some owners will accept a decrease in a pet’s quality of life if it means possibly extending that animal’s lifespan.

But others may not feel the same way. For example, families with small children may believe that their kids can’t emotionally handle a critically ill kitty, so they may decide to euthanize, even if only a minimal quality of life decline has occurred.

So take a minute to jot down the quality of life issues that you don’t want your pet to endure. The list will be different for everyone, but you may want to include things like not being able to play fetch or being unable to access a litterbox. Keep this list handy, and review it often, so you remain true to your principles — and true to your commitment to your best friend until the end.

Dr. Ann Hohenhaus, a practicing veterinarian for 25 years, is board-certified in both oncology and internal medicine. She maintains her clinical practice at The Animal Medical Center in New York City, providing primary care to her long-term patients and specialty care to pets with cancer and blood disorders.