The High Price -- Emotional and Financial -- of Pet Cancer

Pet cancer is on the rise, and that's pushing up the cost of veterinary care.
Pet cancer is on the rise, and that's pushing up the cost of veterinary care.

How much is a pet's love worth? It may seem priceless, but it can actually cost a pretty penny. In our case, we spent $1,000 in veterinarian bills -- and even that wasn't enough.

Our story begins a few months ago, when our miniature schnauzer, Ruby, started vomiting. My wife and I figured that her stomach was bothering her because she was eating our cats' food. We took her to the vet, who figured the same thing. But she kept throwing up; nothing seemed to help. Still, it remained only a minor annoyance until a few weeks ago, when she started losing weight an alarming rate. Although neither my wife or I works in the medical field, we knew this was bad.

Our worst fears were realized after a $300 ultrasound, which showed that Ruby had a large tumor in her stomach. It was cancer, and the disease had already likely spread to other organs, including her liver. It was terminal.

My family loved Ruby, but after accumulating some $1,000 in vet bills, we didn't see the point of spending any more money to treat a dying 13-year-old dog. The vets didn't push it, either. In the end, the disease was too much for Ruby and we were forced to put her to sleep. Our story is depressingly common. It's becoming more common all the time.

Pet Cancer On the Rise

Pet cancers are on the rise, partly because companion animals are living longer. The statistics are eyebrow-raising: One study found that almost half of all dogs at least 10 years old die of the disease, Dr. Erika Krick, a veterinary oncologist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, told me.

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Some breeds, such as boxers, Labrador retrievers and chow chows, are especially susceptible to cancer. For example, an estimated 60% of golden retrievers die of the disease, according to the Morris Animal Foundation, and the Golden Retriever Foundation is funding a $1 million study of the breed's genetic risk factors for cancer.

Mini schnauzers like Ruby are no more likely to get sick than other dogs. However, stomach cancers like one Ruby had usually are fatal.

Cats aren't exempt either. The rate among cats is probably similar to that of dogs, although no studies have proven this so far, Krick says.

As in humans, environmental factors can play a role. One study found double the lymphoma rates in cats with owners that smoke. Some studies have found indications that purebred cats may have a higher risk of tumors, although there is no consensus on that point, Dr. Elizabeth Colleran, incoming president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners, said in a statement.

Pet Health-Care Bills Also Growing

As the number of pet cancer cases grows alongisde advances in the scientific understanding of the disease, the bills also are mounting up. The ranks of U.S. veterinarian oncologists -- which only number several hundred today -- are growing. And last year, the FDA approved Palladia, the first-ever drug to specifically treat canine cancer.

More cancer treatments are available, and increasingly, pet owners are willing to pay for these treatments instead of automatically euthanizing their suffering animals, according to Tom McPheron, a spokesman for the American Veterinary Medical Association. Some clients are wiling to spend thousands of dollars on chemotherapy, radiation treatments and medicines, many of which are animal-sized doses of human cancer medicines.

But the availability of these expensive treatments means hard choices for many. "It is certainly not the situation where everybody can afford our treatment," Krick says, adding that some financial assistance is available. "Certainly, one very important part of veterinary oncology is the quality of life for our patients. There are certainly cases where the risks (of treatments) outweigh the benefits. It's extremely frustrating."

And, of course, even when owners are willing to spend the money, it doesn't guarantee success. Sometimes animals can be helped, but -- as with people suffering from cancer -- not all treatments are successful.

For Cy Leap, a dog groomer from Dunedin, Fla., money was no object when it came to treating Butch, his beloved smooth-coated chow chow, for bone cancer. He spent about $1,000 on the dog's treatment and would have spent another $4,500 on surgery, but his vet advised him that it would have been pointless. Butch eventually succumbed to the disease.

"It definitely soaks up the money," Leap says, adding that he was willing to spend the money because Butch was "family."

We felt the same way about Ruby.