When veterinary oncologist Dr. Melinda Van Vechten was starting her career in the late '80s, there wasn't much to offer a person whose pet had been diagnosed with cancer.
"People were pretty much told 'Your pet has cancer' and that was that," she says.
That's not the case anymore. Today, says Van Vechten, there's a wide range of options, everything from hospice care aimed at pain-management to the most aggressive surgical, chemo and radiation therapies. The outcome? Cures for some pets, long-term remissions for others and, for the rest, a good quality of life for a little extra time.
For many people, even the latter outcome can be a better option than nothing at all.
Van Vechten's recently opened veterinary hospital -- Northern California Veterinary Specialists in Sacramento, Calif. -- covers the range of options and outcomes. The hospital has such cutting-edge diagnostic and treatment equipment as a CT scanner and a nuclear accelerator, and all the latest medications for fighting the disease and treating the pain.
But perhaps the most poignant sign of how hard the fight against cancer can be, the center also has a quiet room set aside for tearful goodbyes when there's nothing more to be offered to a pet except a final release from suffering.
With the life of an animal not that long to begin with, at least not compared to a human lifespan, even the victories can seem short-lived. But for many people, a few more months or a few more years with a pet is worth pursuing, if a good quality of life can be maintained.
"People like knowing that cancer's not the end of it, that something's available," she says. "It's all about getting the word out that there's something we can do."
That "something" can be expensive, no doubt about it. In a concrete bunker in the rear of the center, the nuclear accelerator looms. The cost of the equipment and the highly trained operators make radiation therapy an option out of reach of many pet lovers, admits Van Vechten, who says that some cancer treatment regimens can easily run into five figures. Even the cost of finding out exactly what's wrong with a pet can be prohibitively expensive for many people, when factoring in the use of diagnostic equipment such as an ultrasound or CT scanner.
For Van Vechten, it comes back to options. She says being a veterinary oncologist is about helping people make their decisions knowing what all their choices are. It's also about helping them to be realistic about the probable outcomes of those decisions.
As you talk to Van Vechten, you get a sense of how oncology is different in human medicine vs. veterinary medicine. In human medicine, allowing someone to die of cancer virtually untreated except for pain medication can be highly controversial, and euthanasia is even more of a highly charged topic. In veterinary medicine, euthanasia is an accepted and merciful end to suffering, a final act of love for a cherished animal companion.
"In my years of practice, I've had very few people who wouldn't let go when it was time to let go," says Van Vechten. "Sometimes it's not humane to keep treating an animal. I don't go for the maximum days of life. I go for the maximum quality of life."
For some pets with cancer, the quality is very good indeed, and so is the length of time left to be shared. These are the victories most savored by pet lovers and veterinarians alike.
Cancer: Know the signs
According to veterinary oncologist Dr. Melinda Van Vechten, these are some of the warning signs of cancer in dogs and cats:
-- asymmetrical swelling
-- lumps and bumps
-- a wound that doesn't heal
-- unexplained weight loss
-- lameness that can't be attributed to injury
-- an older pet who's not thriving
-- unexplained vomiting or diarrhea
Any of these signs should be checked out by your veterinarian without delay. A couple of the best ways to protect your cat or dog from some common cancers are to alter them and keep them from secondhand smoke, according to Van Vechten.
Lower voices earn respect
Q: Around our house it's "Wait until your father gets home" as far as our dog is concerned. Bess is our corgi, and the only person she minds is my husband. She ignores me and our 8-year-old daughter. It's irritating! Why doesn't she listen to us, and how can we change things? -- F.P., via e-mail
A: A deep voice gets respect. That's true with people and that's true with dogs.
"Most men have deeper voices than do most women," says dog trainer and award-winning author Liz Palika, who notes that canine mothers use a deep growl when correcting bad behavior in their young puppies.
Most women start out with higher-pitched voices than most men have, and when women get frustrated or angry, their pitch goes even higher. "In verbal canine language, a high-pitched voice means either play or hurt," says Palika. "Neither of these convey authority."
Palika says people with higher-pitched voices can learn to speak so their dogs will respect them. "A deep sound, such as 'acckkk' or 'errr-errr' -- think of Tim Allen in 'Home Improvement' (saying) 'power tools, errr-errr!' -- is all that's needed," she says. "The sound gets the dog's attention."
I have a funny story to add to this: In gatherings of dog trainers, I've noticed that both men and women use deeper voices and authoritative body language with each other -- probably because they're used to being aware of the impact of pitch and stature more than most other people.
At one meeting years ago, I listened as a controversial issue was being discussed. The dog trainers dropped the pitch of their voices and pulled themselves up on their toes like terriers who'd spotted a rat. They made clear, bold eye contact when arguing their case, and even averted their eyes submissively when conceding a point.
To this day I don't remember the topics of discussion, but I clearly remember the body language of the people in the room. It was like watching wolves on a nature show.
Save the houseplants!
Q: Is it possible to have both houseplants and cats? I ask out of desperation. My two cats seem to spend their days thinking of new ways to destroy my plants. -- H.L., via e-mail
A: You'll need to make some compromises. First, check your plants to make sure none of them presents a health risk to your cats. You can find lists of toxic plants in many general-reference cat books, or on the Web site of the Animal Poison Control Center (www.aspca.org/apcc). To protect your plants, hang up as many of them as you can, and cover the soil of those you can't with sharp-edged decorative rocks to discourage digging.
You can also make the leaves icky-tasting by coating them with something your cat finds disagreeable. Cat-discouragers include Bitter Apple, available at any pet-supply store, or Tabasco sauce.
Give your cats plants of their own. Sow grass seeds in a shallow planter and keep a fresh crop of seedlings for nibbling. In an area away from your cats, put some catnip in pots. Once these plants are established, you can use fresh trimmings to rub on cat trees and to stuff in toys to keep your pets entertained.
I'd also recommend more activities for your cats -- more toys and more interactive games, such as using a cat "fishing" toy. Your cats are probably a tad bored, and more opportunities for safe, nondestructive play will help keep them out of trouble.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com.)
No matter the size, dogs are wolves
As strange as it may seem when considering the incredible range of sizes, shapes and even coat types and markings, every dog from the smallest Chihuahua to the tallest Irish wolfhound is genetically a wolf.
Mark Derr, author of "A Dog's History of America" and "Dog's Best Friend" and a regular contributor on dog-related issues to national magazines, points out that the dog was reclassified as a wolf several years ago, and is no longer considered to be a stand-alone species.
Our meddling into their breeding is behind the wide range of types in dogs, and it's likely if we stopped today, dogs would eventually mix it up on their own until they ended up looking a lot more like wolves, says Derr.
"When left to breed freely, dogs revert to a generalized pariah-type often associated with the dingo or pariah dog of India or generic husky -- a medium-sized, prick-eared animal with a ginger, black, black and tan, white, and parti-colored coats," notes Derr. He adds: "The dog doesn't have to revert to the wolf. The dog is a wolf -- albeit a wolf who exists in human society." -- G.S.
Know when your pet might have a fever
Everyone with a dog or cat should be able to take a pet's temperature.
Although you can find a special thermometer for dogs and cats in any pet-supply catalog or well-equipped pet store, you can also use an ordinary glass or digital-readout "people" device from your pharmacy.
To take your pet's temperature, lubricate the thermometer with petroleum jelly or a water-based lubricant, such as K-Y. Gently and slowly insert the thermometer about 1 or 2 inches into your pet's fanny.
Leave the thermometer in place for a couple of minutes. In a normal cat or dog, the temperature should be between 100 degrees and 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit, and the thermometer should be almost clean after it's removed. Anything much above or below that range is cause for concern, as is any blood on the thermometer. Call your veterinarian if you have concerns.
(Pet Rx is provided by the Veterinary Information Network (VIN.com), an online service for veterinary professionals. More information can be found at www.veterinarypartner.com.)
Hypoallergenic dog? Don't bet on it
All dogs have the potential to cause misery in allergy sufferers, no matter the breed or mix, or the hair (or lack thereof). So say top allergy and asthma specialists, such as Dr. Harold Nelson of the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver.
The dogs that are widely hyped to be safe for allergy sufferers are those with poodle-like coats. The list includes poodles, of course, and all those doodle-poodle mixes. Some people also believe dogs with little or no hair are also good for allergy sufferers.
The problem with the fur theory, according to Nelson, is that it's not the fur that causes the problems. He says allergies are caused by a substance found in the sebaceous glands in a dog's skin. The substance clings to the skin and hair, and ends up everywhere. Sneezing and wheezing in people with allergies are the result.
"The animal's hair is the carrier, not the source," says Nelson, who adds that every warm-blooded animal produces similar allergens. In other words, if you really want a hypoallergenic pet, think reptile, or maybe fish.
That said, some breeds seem to be better tolerated by some people with allergies, but reactions vary from person to person and dog to dog. The American Kennel Club suggests 15 breeds that may be easier on allergy sufferers. These include: the Bedlington terrier, bichon frise, the hairless Chinese crested, Irish water spaniel, Kerry blue terrier, Maltese, all three sizes of poodle, Portuguese water dog, all three sizes of schnauzer, soft-coated wheaten terrier and the xoloitzcuintli (like the Chinese crested, a small hairless breed).
In general, smaller dogs seem to be less of a problem than larger ones, but Nelson points out that this is because smaller dogs put out smaller amounts of allergen. Bathing your dog frequently can help, as can keeping pets out of your bedroom so you can have an allergy-free sleep.
BY THE NUMBERS
Pet popularity grows
The American Pet Product Manufacturers Association started tracking pet ownership trends in 1988, when 51.7 percent of U.S. households reported keeping a pet. In the last decade, the trend has gained momentum:
Year U.S. households with pets Percent of total U.S. population
1996 99,000 59 percent
1998 100,400 61 percent
2000 101,868 62 percent
2002 104,090 62 percent
2004 110,633 63 percent
ON THE WEB
Cat images sites keep multiplying
Where will it end? There seems to be no shortage of Web sites for people to share their goofiest pictures of their cats.
One of the best-known is My Cat Hates You (www.mycathatesyou.com), which has been so popular, the images were compiled into two books and a Page-a-Day calendar (all available for sale on the Web site, of course). Then came the Stuff on My Cat site (www.stuffonmycat.com), to which people submitted images of bemused kitties with everything from CD cases to candy bars piled on top of them.
But wait. There's more! How about Cats in Sinks (www.catsinsinks.com) and The Cat Box (www.flickr.com/groups/catbox), for pictures of cats in boxes. For that matter, just go to the photo-sharing site Flikr (www.flickr.com) and search for images tagged with the word "cat" or "cats." You'll find enough images -- more than 400,000 -- to keep you looking for years. -- G.S.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.
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