Can a Pet be too Old for Cancer Treatment?

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I read this story on PetMD last night: and was moved to write about our dog Becca as we had to face this very question for her this past year.

We adopted Becca through a local Labrador rescue organization in 2009 when our Sally (a chocolate lab we had since she was a pup) passed away. We wanted to get another dog, but needed to find a suitable companion to the other dog in our house, Tino, who was around 11 yrs old and blind. Becca had been a service dog and an owner turn-in. She was also a ‘senior’ at age 9. We figured she would be calm and well-behaved and so a good match with Tino. And we knew at that age, she would be tough to place, so we choose her.

Becca’s service had been to carry a pack for her owner – we didn’t know much else about her background other than that, but soon discovered she had multiple orthopedic issues. Her spine was almost totally fused from her neck to her tailbone, one of the worst our orthopedic vet, Dr. Bruecker had ever seen. And she had two bad knees – likely torn ACL injuries that had never fully healed. We got her on supplements and pain killers immediately.

Becca would have what we called ‘incidents’ where she would tweak her back – sometimes by doing nothing but lying down. She always stood or laid down, she couldn’t really sit because of her back issues. This would be an extreme event and she would yelp out and depending on the severity, she might not be able to get comfortable again for hours or even days. She would pace the house looking for a spot that might afford some comfort. She’d go from spot to spot, lie down and usually get back up immediately as it was uncomfortable. When these incidents would occur, we knew the only solution was to dose her up with some pain killers and muscle relaxants and just try to keep her comfortable. I spent many nights lying on the floor with her massaging her, trying to ease her discomfort.

After being with us for awhile, these incidents became fewer and farther between. The medication helped, and we also got her on regular beccaacupuncture and physical therapy. Here’s a picture of her in the water tank…note the ball in her mouth! Becca got stronger and stronger and was once again able to romp around a bit and play fetch – which she loved. We had to be judicious about allowing to much rough housing because she could so easily hurt herself, but a few tosses a couple of times a day was enough for her. And frequently, when she had enough, she would just bring herself and the ball back into the house.  She self-regulated 😉 We were even able to take her running with us sometimes for short loops in the neighborhood – she loved it.

Just about a year ago, Becca started limping on her front right leg. She hobbled so much already because of her prior injuries, we didn’t think that much of it and increased her pain meds a bit. After a week or so of no improvement, we took her to the vet and after an xray, we received the diagnosis of bone cancer in her right shoulder. We were devastated. We had just lost our Tino a few months earlier to old age and just weren’t ready to say goodbye to another member of the family.

Amputation is a typical course of action for the type and location of Becca’s cancer. Unfortunately, due to her spinal and knee issues, removing one of her stable limbs was just not feasible. The vets suggested a course of radiation for pain control and chemotherapy in the hopes of slowing the growth of the tumor. The radiation treatment seemed reasoned and I knew it wasn’t going to ‘hurt’ her other than the anesthesia – always a risk with any dog, but more so with seniors. We agonized on the chemotherapy. Having seen the ravages of chemo on my brother, I didn’t want to subject her to it. The vets explained the dosage is much lower and more controlled and most dogs don’t react negatively at all. We decided to hold off and see how the radiation worked.

Three rounds of radiation proved beneficial – Becca bounced back and the limp was almost gone. We decided to try the chemo. Unfortunately, Becca was not one of those dogs who handled it well. Maybe it was her age, or her physical condition, but she got very sick almost immediately.  She stopped eating, developed diarrhea and was physically weak and shaky. We stopped the chemo treatments (a pill). She stayed sick for a week or so – we would keep her bundled up in blankets and make nice home-cooked meals that we would try to convince her to eat. Slowly she recovered from being so sick, but was noticeably weaker and more frail. She slept almost the entire day – probably 23 hours. We knew her time was short.

We could have tried again, with different dosages of the medication, but this is where the hard decisions of a pet parent come in. Do I put her through this in order to have her in our lives another month or two or maybe three? And what kind of life would it be for HER? I went to visit our vet while agonizing over this to get his perspective. He said something that really stuck with me: “When a dog is terminal, as Becca is, you can never be to early, but you CAN be too late”.

I went home that day and sat with Becca and my husband and made that hard choice to relieve her suffering. We planned a special weekend for her, doing things we knew she loved to do and then had her euthanized at home on a sunny Sunday afternoon. She lived just three short months after the diagnosis but we like to think she had three good years with us. We loved her very much – she was the right dog for us at the right time. I hope we were the right pet parents for her and that we made the right decision. We have to believe we did.

So, to circle back to this article, I guess my answer would be, yes a dog can be too old for cancer treatment. Becca was just not strong enough, in my opinion, to go through the ups and downs and potential discomfort the treatment would have brought. She had plenty of years of pain carrying that pack with bad knees and bad back – we felt that she had suffered enough.becca

We’d love to hear your thoughts and your stories of how you’ve made this decision with your dogs. Please leave a comment or email us.


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  1. What a beautiful story, be assured you were the right pet parents….

  2. I also went through the same thing with my beloved Benjamin. I also had him euthanized at home after eating as many cookies and ice cream as he wanted.
    The “service” dog industry needs to be better regulated. I rescue animals and have seen many abuses of these animals To never take care of someone who has been bred to cater to you and then give her up after nine years is cruel.
    I am glad Becca found a wonderful home with you and for a few years knew love. But many service dogs don’t.

    • Thanks for the comment Nancy. Benjamin must have loved the cookies and ice cream; it was nice of you to provide that for him.

      Interesting point about the service dog industry. We don’t know the story behind why Becca was given up and we hope that it was not a callous decision. We do know, as you do, that these dogs are amazing and essentially allow their owners to live a somewhat more normal life. What a gift!

  3. I know exactly what you are going through. Our dog was diagnosed with bone cancer in early may when we saw that his front leg had swollen up and he was limping badly. It was bone cancer and the vet gave us pills to keep him comfortable. The pills were only good for about a month, so it seemed like he wouldn’t live much longer after that.

    He was twelve years old and already had some arthritis, we didn’t think amputating the limb would help him much. We were also very wary about chemo. Even though he was very healthy other than the cancer for his age and extremely active, we thought he may be too old for this. We didn’t think his body would be able to take it. We didn’t want to put him through the chemo with only the chance that it might buy him a few more months.

    We decided to go the more natural way with dog supplements and Essiac tea which was said by many dog owners to slow down the cancer. Our dog bounced back and even stopped limping although his leg was still swollen! He loved the supplement treats and tea, we always begged for more! Throughout the summer he was feeling great.

    In the fall his paw got a bit more swollen but he still wanted to be as active as ever and was always trying to eat as much as possible. It was very late October when it just got too bad. His paw was too swollen and he would almost fall down just by walking. Yet, he still wanted to be jumping around even though he was in pain. We made the hard choice to put him down because at that point, he couldn’t do any of the things he loved like doing tricks and jumping on the fence. He was also starting to shiver so we also had to cover him in blankets although he did NOT like lying down in bed. He was to be up and following people around the house!

    We are happy knowing that he lasted six months after his diagnosis when the vet thought he’d only make a year! He was also happy during the time and spent all his summer days laying in the sun – his favorite activity. I agree that a dog can just be too old for treatment and end up putting them. through more harm rather than helping them.

    • What a great story Erica, thanks for sharing. I am so glad that you were blessed with those ‘extra’ 6 months post DX. All things considered, that is as much as one could hope for in your situation.

      I would love to know more about your dog’s story — how you got him, quirky behaviors, etc. You have done a nice job describing the post cancer DX period so let’s learn about the earlier times? Check out our Tales of Tails section– we are accepting ‘guest’ posts featuring stories about our reader’s dogs:

      We would be happy to include the story on our site.

      • Thank you. 🙂 I will check it out. Yes, he had very quirky behaviors! Some which included walking up the stairs backwards and doing “the snake”, one of his unique tricks.

        I noticed a mistake I made in my previous post. I said “We are happy knowing that he lasted six months after his diagnosis when the vet thought he’d only make a year!”

        It should be “the vet thought he’d only last a week” not “year”.

        • Backwards stair climbing sounds priceless! We would love for you to share 1-2 pages and we will post it. Send us your draft to info ‘at’ slimdoggy
          dot com.

          Did you see us on ABC TV (Washington DC) this past Saturday? Here is a link to our post about it– and you can click from this to the actual show video. Our segment started at about the 7 minute mark of the show.

  4. I have appreciated reading the stories of other ‘dog parents’ dealing with their beloved pets’ osteo sarcoma. Gretta is 11 years old. She has been a teriffic therapy dog with TDI for several years and brought a great deal of happiness to the very young and very old. In October we noticed a slight limp caused by her right front leg. November 13 we took her to UWM-Madison and they told us of her diagnosis. We were offered the preferred suggested treatments;amputation followed by chemo, or radiation and chemo.which would extend her life 4 mos. to possibly 16 mos. There was no cure. After a great deal of thought we decided to follow the suggestions for treating her with’natural’ suppliments and diet helpful for cancer patients suggested in the ‘Dog Cancer Survival Guide’. At this time it is nearly 3 months since diagnosis. She sleeps a lot, loves to be with people and still enjoys life, although she walks with great difficulty, she enjoys living and all around her. When she is sitting or lying in our back yard she will bark with warning at a dog that goes past our fence, and she will still howl at fire engines and ambulances that go by with sirens on. We are taking it day by day, giving her back our love and care for all she has done for us and so many other humans. She continues to ‘talk’ to us in her own unique Rottweiler way. Although our relationship is completely different because of her disability, she is just as precious to us and it will always be that way.

    • Ruth, thanks for sharing your story about Gretta. I hope she has many pain free & happy months left with you. Sounds like she knows she is loved.

    • My dog also loved to howl at hire trucks that passed by and would also howl back to you if we imitated the noises. It was adorable. I wish you the best, we decided to go the same route with our dog, Skip.

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