A general practitioner is often the veterinarian who breaks the initial news of cancer to a dog lover. They may feel comfortable treating cancer, but in many cases, they will refer you to a veterinary oncology specialist who has more expertise. But is an oncologist really necessary, or just an added expense?
Do You Need an Oncologist if Your Dog Has Cancer?
When you’ve just gotten the news that your dog has cancer, you’re often in shock. Getting a referral to a new veterinarian may feel distressing and disorienting. Many dog lovers just want to “stay with” their general practice vet, because they feel comfortable with them. They also often imagine that an oncologist will not be as warm and loving as their regular veterinarian. So if you’re in that boat, and wondering if your dog should see an oncologist or vet for dog cancer diagnosis and treatments, you’re not alone.
What Is a General Practitioner, and How Do They Treat Dog Cancer?
General practitioner (GP) veterinarians have received a doctorate in veterinary medicine, and some have completed optional post-doctoral internships in general medicine, surgery, or other specialties. GPs are also called primary care veterinarians. They treat many conditions that affect dogs and can be compared to a family doctor for people.
General practitioners perform procedures, do surgeries, and deliver vaccinations. They manage your dog’s general wellness from puppyhood through to the end of life. They manage both minor and severe cases and perform diagnostics such as bloodwork, urinalysis, X-ray and sometimes ultrasound. The cost of an examination or diagnostics with a general practitioner is generally less than with a specialist.
During cancer treatment, even if a general practitioner refers to a specialist, they are still involved. The general practitioner may perform surgery, perform monitoring lab work while a dog is undergoing chemotherapy, dispense medications, or perform X-rays to monitor patients and assess for metastatic spread of cancer.
What Does an Oncologist Do for Dogs?
A veterinary oncologist is a veterinary internal medicine specialist who practices exclusively in oncology: the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. They are specially trained to manage underlying conditions while maintaining a good quality of life in dogs with cancer.1
Every oncologist starts by obtaining their doctorate to become a veterinarian, the same degree GPs get. Then, veterinary oncologists receive additional training. They generally do a one-year internship in general medicine, sometimes an additional specialty oncology internship, and are required to do a three-year residency. Residencies are offered in medical (chemotherapy and other medicines) and radiation oncology. After residency, the oncologist passes the veterinary oncology exam and becomes board-certified.
Oncology’s Specialty Areas
Medical oncologists deliver treatments including chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and targeted drug therapy. A radiation oncologist specializes in radiation therapy.
Oncologist Consultation Costs
An initial consultation with a veterinary oncologist is generally more expensive than a consultation with a GP. A consultation can cost up to $250, and the average cost for canine cancer treatment is around $4,000.2 But costs depend on the type of tumor, and in some cases, the cost can be much higher.
Oncologists are an invaluable source of information if your dog has cancer because they live and breathe cancer diagnosis and treatment every day.
Although an oncology consultation may seem too expensive, consulting an oncologist is often the best way to learn all available information about and treatment options for your dog’s cancer.
This is true even when money is a concern. That’s because oncologists are the best ones to advise about what tests are important to run, and which can be skipped in favor of treatment.
Oncologists Do Not Expect You to Use Every Option They Offer You
It’s important to remember that just making an appointment for a consultation does not lock you into a course of treatment. Oncologists do not expect you to take their advice automatically or to make treatment decisions at the time of the consultation.
If you need time to think and decide what to do, they will understand and offer their best advice.
Is It Worth Putting a Dog Through Chemotherapy?
The answer to this question will be different for every dog cancer case. Dogs tolerate chemotherapy much better than humans do, and veterinary oncologists put their comfort and safety first.
A veterinary oncologist’s primary concern is treating your dog’s cancer without lowering the quality of life.
Should My Dog See an Oncologist or Vet?
You probably like and trust your general practitioner, and many people want to “stay with” their GP to treat dog cancer. That is understandable. However, you might want to think about adding an oncologist to your team, and your GP may want to, as well.
General practitioners often refer to veterinary oncologists for the treatment of cancer cases. There are many reasons why a general practitioner may refer, including a lack of experience in treating the type of cancer, not having specific diagnostic tools, and whether their facility can manage the special handling requirements for certain chemotherapeutics.4
General practitioners can diagnose and treat many diseases, and some administer cancer treatments such as chemotherapy. GPs are excellent at screening for diseases, but they just do not have the same intensive, specific training in oncology as a specialist. Oncology specialists live and breathe cancer.
Veterinary Oncologists Have More Equipment and Resources for Cancer
Some cancer treatment modalities require significant investment in expensive technology. For example, radiation machines cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, require special housing, and even require a staff physicist to keep them in good working order. These tools are more common in veterinary oncology offices since they will be used more frequently. Veterinary oncologists will also have more experience using multi-drug protocols and the most current treatments than most GPs.4
Veterinary oncologists also often work in a specialty facility alongside other veterinary specialists such as surgeons, internal medicine specialists, and radiologists. Having these connections readily available can be helpful, as the oncologist can quickly and easily ask colleagues for their input.
Other Factors to Consider When Building Your Team
It is a major decision to select the veterinarian(s) you will entrust to treat your dog with cancer. Choosing a veterinarian that has expertise treating the specific type of cancer your dog has is important. Your regular GP is often the best place to start building your team. They know the “lay of the land” in your area the best.
What about if you can’t find an oncologist? They tend to be in large metropolitan areas or working in research universities. Depending on where you live, there may not be as many options. Follow-up appointments may be frequent, and it is important to find a location that is a reasonable distance so you can keep up with the treatment schedule.3
Communication Is Key
You often can have the best of both worlds. Discuss your goals for your dog and your time, travel, and financial limitations with your regular vet to help determine the best way forward. If you cannot visit an oncologist in person, you may be able to do a remote consultation. Perhaps your general practitioner will handle all routine testing and follow-up scans, leaving the specialized treatments to the oncologist. Like in human medicine, GPs and specialists expect to work as a team. Both your dog’s GP and oncologist can work together to come up with a treatment plan that fits both your dog’s needs and yours.
- What is veterinary oncology? Ross Vet. https://veterinary.rossu.edu/about/blog/veterinary-oncology. Published February 8, 2022. Accessed December 10, 2022.
- Cat and dog chemotherapy cost and financing. CareCredit. https://www.carecredit.com/well-u/pet-care/cat-and-dog-chemotherapy-cost-and-financing/. Published January 23, 2021. Accessed December 10, 2022.
- The role of the general practitioner or referring veterinarian. American Animal Hospital Association. https://www.aaha.org/aaha-guidelines/oncology-configuration/implementation-toolkit/the-role-of-the-general-practitioner-or-referring-veterinarian/. Accessed December 10, 2022.
- Kidd C. The many challenges of veterinary oncology. The Canadian veterinary journal = La revue veterinaire canadienne. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2572103/. Published November 2008. Accessed December 10, 2022.
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