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How to Cope in the Face of Canine Cancer

Reviewed by Jane Robertson DVM, DACVIM on Monday, September 22, 2014
Posted September 25, 2014 in A Vet's Life

Dr. Phil Zeltzman is a traveling, board-certified surgeon in Allentown, PA. His website is He is the co-author of “Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound” (

Kelly Serfas, a Certified Veterinary Technician in Bethlehem, PA, contributed to this article.

Women comforting her dog

Bailey, a 6-year-old Labrador mix, began limping on his left back leg after running to catch a bunny. The limping did not go away after a week, so Bailey’s owners scheduled an appointment with their family veterinarian. The way it happened and the physical exam both indicated a torn ACL (anterior cruciate ligament). X-rays confirmed an ACL tear, and Bailey’s veterinarian recommended a consultation with a board-certified surgeon (yours truly) to repair the ACL. When I reviewed the X-rays, it appeared that the ACL was not the issue. My heart sank. The issue was something much more serious.

Canine bone cancer
Bailey most likely had osteosarcoma—the most common type of bone cancer. I called his guardian to discuss the new diagnosis. He was clearly devastated. We went over what osteosarcoma is and what we can do about it. He elected amputation, and would probably not follow up with chemotherapy. That would buy time for Bailey, hopefully 3 to 6 months at least, but Bailey would be comfortable and functional during that time.

I then called Bailey’s family veterinarian to instruct the clinic to have the client come back the next day for chest X-rays. Before surgery, we had to make sure the tumor had not spread to the lungs.

The next morning however, the clinic called to inform me that the owner came in and decided to euthanize Bailey right then and there. Surgery was cancelled.

It was my turn to be devastated. I didn’t understand why the decision had been changed so quickly and I wished I could have had an opportunity to further discuss things with Bailey’s guardian. It sounded like a purely emotional reaction. Bailey was otherwise in good health, the cancer had not yet spread and with the leg amputation he could have enjoyed his extra life.

Dealing with a bad diagnosis
It’s hard not to get emotional when your pet has been given a poor diagnosis. It might be a good idea to slow down, take a breath, and think rationally about the best way to deal with your circumstances. Try to think of the situation from your

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Dr. Phil Zeltzman is a board-certified veterinary surgeon and author. His traveling practice takes him all over Eastern Pennsylvania and Western New Jersey. You can visit his website at, and follow him at

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