While a diagnosis of cancer in a pet is never an easy pill to swallow, it doesn’t have to be all bad news. Veterinarians at Oregon State University Oncology Services are known for being experts on treating many forms of cancer common in cats and dogs. Not only that, they’re training students who will be able to take that expertise with them into their own practices and clinics statewide and nationwide.
In 2001, the Oregon legislature provided funds to add a small animal clinic to the existing teaching and large animal facility at OSU, which had been in place since 1979, as well as expand the DVM program. According to the Veterinary Medicine Program website, “The program was implemented in 2003 with the class of 2007. Additions to Magruder Hall were completed in September 2004 and the small animal clinic was opened in May 2005.”
Now part of the Lois Bates Acheson Veterinary Teaching Hospital, the team at OSU Vet School works with the Oregon Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory to provide training to students as well as services to the extended community. When an animal is referred to the teaching hospital for cancer, they are in some of the finest of hands.
Haley Leeper is a medical oncologist at Oregon State, as well as an assistant clinical professor. She says that research and treatment of animals can often benefit people, and vice versa.
“Many cancers that naturally arise in the dog and cat share features with cancers found in people. These similarities lead to opportunities for comparative research that benefits both veterinary species and people,” Leeper said. “Some of the similarities include the clinical presentation, biological behavior, and response to conventional therapy.”
However, there are significant differences between oncology for humans and oncology for animals. For example, veterinarians don’t use the same doses of chemotherapy or multi-drug treatments that are often used in human oncology.
“This is because we cannot ask our patients if they are okay with particular side effects like [doctors] can with human patients,” Leeper says. “Because of this trade off, we often have shorter remission rates and fewer cures.”
But the goals are slightly different than for humans as well.
“As veterinary oncologists, our goal is to improve or maintain good quality of life in our dog and cat patients. As a result of these lower chemotherapy doses, many dogs and cats going through chemotherapy protocols do not experience the same degree of side effects as humans do,” Leeper says.
Pet Oncology is Hard to Find
According to Leeper, veterinary oncology is a newer specialty in the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine. Because of this, access can be limited for those searching for a veterinary oncologist.
“As one of the few sites that offers veterinary oncology in the area, we specialize in consulting with our clients about their particular pet’s cancer diagnosis and help them formulate the best plan,” Leeper says.
The types of cancers that the oncology department treats vary widely but there are some common players. According to Leeper, the most common form of cancer we see in dogs is lymphoma, followed by various forms of skin cancer – mast cell tumor, soft tissue sarcoma – and osteosarcoma – bone cancer. She also says that the most common cancer in cats is lymphoma, followed up by squamous cell carcinoma.
Treatment varies greatly, from surgery to radiation therapy, chemotherapy to immunotherapy.
“Treatment protocols are largely based on what cancer the pet has been diagnosed with,” Leeper said. “Treatment of cancer is always based on the needs of the individual pet with the primary goal of maintaining and extending good quality life.”
They’ve Got the Expertise
So why is OSU so successful at what they do? Leeper says it’s a combination of factors, but has mostly to do with the level of expertise found throughout the department. The service is made up of board-certified oncologists, residents receiving their oncology training, and veterinary technicians who are specialists in cancer care.
“In addition,” Leeper says, “we work closely with specialists in soft tissue surgery, [and] imaging as well as clinical and anatomical pathology. The team is dedicated to advancing the treatment and research of canine and feline cancers by staying up to date with the latest advances in veterinary oncology, offering unique clinical trials in treatment options, and supporting our clients through the journey.”
The next big step for OSU Oncology will be purchasing a linear accelerator to be able to offer radiation therapy on site. Sponsors Ken and Celia Austin recently began a fundraising effort with a $500,000 gift toward purchasing this vital piece of equipment. The accelerator costs around $2.2 million and the department is excited to be able to offer radiation therapy to their patients.
Leeper wants pet owners to be aware that the symptoms of cancer in dogs and cats vary greatly, and there isn’t one unique clinical sign of cancer in pets.
“It is important to know that some cancers are incidental findings and are not associated with any changes to the pet’s behavior or appearance,” Leeper says. “Therefore, veterinarians focus on findings in annual physical examinations in combination with behavioral signs or changes at home to help screen for cancer.”
This means it’s important for your pets to see their veterinarian regularly in order to establish a baseline for their specific health and behavior. If your pet is diagnosed with cancer, OSU Veterinary Oncology will be there to support you and your pet throughout the journey.
By Kyra Young