Battle is fierce for pets with cancer


Angel is administered treatment while in the oncology treatment facility at the Small Animal Hospital at the University of Florida in Gainesville on Wednesday.

Erica Brough/Staff photographer
Published: Thursday, July 4, 2013 at 7:11 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, July 4, 2013 at 7:11 p.m.

When Jennifer Tozzo noticed a growth in her dog Zoe's mouth, she thought it was from the dog's teeth irritating her gums.

“I noticed that it was getting bigger. She wasn't as active as she normally is,” Tozzo said. “Finally I just said, ‘I think she has cancer.' ”

As a paramedic and firefighter, Tozzo, who lives in Hawthorne, has always had a hands-on approach to caring for her beloved 11-year-old lab/shepherd mix. Zoe is also a service dog to Tozzo, who has a hearing disability.

“I don't think Zoe would still be here if I hadn't looked inside her mouth,” Tozzo said.

Her diagnosis was correct, and Zoe is now in her fifth month of treatment for melanoma in her mouth with a cancer vaccine at the University of Florida Small Animal Hospital.

Zoe is emblematic of a growing problem among dogs (and cats): Cancer is responsible for over 50 percent of deaths in dogs over age 10, said Dr. Nick Bacon, an oncologist and the chief of oncology at the UF College of Veterinary Medicine.

The clinic treats 25-30 patients a day — about 75 percent of them dogs — and diagnoses 10-20 dogs with cancer per week, he said.

Like humans, MRIs, CT scans and biopsies of tumors are used to stage an animal's cancer, or to determine how advanced the disease is. Also like humans, animals can undergo chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, he added.

While big dogs are more susceptible to bone cancer because of the rapid growth of their bones during their first two years of life, all dogs are prone to nasal tumors because their noses absorb an abundance of chemicals, including pesticides and second-hand smoke, Bacon said.

Cats, with their light-complected noses, lack protection from UV rays and are more likely to develop skin cancers.

Groomers — or sometimes watchful owners — typically find tumors hiding under pets' tails or necks or in their armpits.

Dog owners probably have an easier time because symptoms may be more overt, such as blood in the urine, excessive drooling or persistent bad breath.

Cats, on the other hand, “might not let you know for months,” Bacon added. “They are more secretive really.”

As in humans, “a combination of different genes may cause cancer,” Bacon said, adding that mixed breeds might be more immune to cancer because their genes are mixed.

“Sometimes purebreds get the same kind of cancer because they all have the same genes,” Bacon said.

He added that dogs generally experience fewer side effects from chemotherapy than people; they don't lose fur, and nausea and diarrhea may only last a day or two.

“We don't hit them as hard as people. We focus on quality of life and sacrifice quantity for quality,” he continued, adding that dogs are often put to sleep before they can die naturally from their disease.

Tozzo, who underwent chemotherapy for hepatitis C, did not want to put Zoe through such intense treatments.

“You can't explain to a dog why you are doing that to them,” she said.

Radiation therapy technician Blaine Seese, who used to work in radiology at UF Health Shands Hospital, marvels at how resilient dogs are. “It's amazing how tough these guys are. They can have their teeth hanging by bits and go home and eat Kibbles and Bits,” Seese said.

Seese's job is to home in on an image of the tumor being radiated, to make sure margins are tight enough to eradicate as much of the tumor as possible without hitting healthy tissue.

About half the dogs seen at UF for cancer undergo surgery to remove the tumor, and then they stay overnight to prevent post-op complications, Bacon explained.

On Wednesday, he operated on “Hogan,” a 14-year-old cross-breed with bladder cancer whose tumor he'd removed the day before. But the dog had leaking urine, so Bacon opened him up again to discover the culprit was a leak between two sutures, so he resutured the bladder.

“That's why we're here — to keep a close eye on them,” Bacon said, adding that they were able to nip a small complication in the bud before it could morph into a life-threatening condition.

While most people love their pets, not everyone is prepared to pay for them to stay alive. Cancer therapy for dogs costs in the thousands of dollars, and few people have pet insurance to help them cover the costs, Bacon said.

“Choices are often money-driven as opposed to across the street,” Seese said, referring to Shands Hospital.

But plenty of people will foot the bill to buy time for animals they consider family members.

Tozzo had funding from the Lions Club to help her with Zoe's medical expenses. She also participated in a UF program called PAWS, or Pets Are Wonderful Support, which provides basic veterinary services to the pets of people with disabilities or terminal illnesses at no charge.

“She has a really good quality of life now. She doesn't seem to be in pain. She drools a lot because part of her jaw's missing. She plays with her hard toys,” Tozzo said. “Even if she can live another year with her quality of life, then it's worth it.”

Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119 or kristine.crane@gvillesun.com.

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