What to expect when your dog has cancer

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Amazing advances in animal medicine mean that many pets continue to live well, long after a serious health diagnosis. Find out how Petplan customers Kelly and Darren Griggs discovered just that with their dog, Buster.


Dealing with the diagnosis

‘Buster joined us from the Salisbury Dogs Trust when he was six months old,’ says Kelly. ‘We popped in one day and there he was… a big bundle of fluff. He was a very healthy Collie-cross and he lived a wonderful life, so it was a shock when he became ill. He was only 10 at the time.’

‘The vet said it was just bad luck,’ remembers Darren. ‘It wasn’t anything we had or hadn’t done. Buster’s lymph glands became enlarged in March 2016 then, after lots of blood tests and a biopsy, he was diagnosed with lymphoma (a type of blood cancer) in August.’

Once Buster’s condition was known, Kelly and Darren had a big decision to make: should Buster embark on a course of chemotherapy?

Treatment or not?

‘In the end, we said yes because we knew that if Buster was in pain, we could stop it at any time,’ says Kelly. ‘For us, the most important thing was to save Buster’s life. I would have done anything to make him well again.’

And Buster turned out to be a real trouper, soldiering through 26 weeks of treatment. ‘His resilience was incredible,’ says Kelly. ‘When we took him on holiday, people were amazed to hear that he was on chemo because he looked so well. He had a bit of an upset stomach but nothing we couldn’t handle at home. His personality didn’t change, either – he was still the same happy dog.’

‘Apparently when he went into the treatment room each week, he would immediately offer up his paw because he knew what was coming!’ adds Darren. ‘Then he’d come back out, wagging his tail.’

Enjoying extra time together

Buster’s treatment was a success but it was a tough six months. ‘Darren and I cried a lot, but we never let Buster see us upset,’ remembers Kelly. ‘He was being so brave, so we needed to be equally strong for him.’

The couple also cherished the extra time they had with him. ‘I have to admit, he was quite spoilt,’ admits Kelly. ‘I had always been so strict about what Buster ate but, towards the end, I relaxed the rules a little bit. We made sure he always had company – he used to go to work with Darren, and I reduced my working hours so that I could spend more time with him. And if Darren and I had to go somewhere, Buster would go to my mother-in-law’s house and spend the day with his Granny.

‘We took him to the beach as often as we could, and we had a lovely birthday party for him, with a dog-friendly cake and presents. That turned out to be his last birthday so I’m glad we made it extra-special.’

Approaching the end

For Kelly and Darren, the extra time they had with Buster was bittersweet because they knew the lymphoma could return. Sadly, in October 2017, Buster’s glands swelled up again and he started to slow down.

‘When we initially said yes to Buster’s chemotherapy, our primary concern was always his quality of life,’ says Darren. ‘We were told that a second chemotherapy was possible but unlikely to work, so we decided to let nature take its course. We had never wanted Buster’s safety or comfort to be put at risk.’

‘Even though I knew Buster’s death was coming, I found it hard to accept,’ admits Kelly. ‘Now, though, we’re able to talk about all the good times we shared with him. I can look back and remember my lovely, brave boy.’

The expert view

Shona McLean from All Ears Pet Bereavement Counselling often provides support for people whose pets have a life-threatening illness. She recommends staying informed: ‘Get as much detail as possible about what your pet is experiencing. Talk to your vet about what to expect, and share your feelings with the people you love. That way, anxiety about the diagnosis won’t spoil the time you have left together with your pet.’

Pet bereavement counsellor Kate Brown agrees. ‘Pet-owners can feel a bit embarrassed about getting too emotional about an animal, but you should never feel as if you have to minimise your feelings.’

Diane James from the Blue Cross Pet Bereavement Support Service suggests compiling a ‘bucket list’, including favourite walks, places to visit together, toys and games. ‘Take photos as you work through your bucket list together, and you’ll be creating even more good memories.’ Small keepsakes can help, too. ‘Start a special box or a scrapbook to remember your dog, just as you would a friend or family member,’ suggests Kate. She also recommends making an edited video of your dog doing his favourite things. ‘It’s something you can watch later, and can be a really valuable source of memories.’ And Shona recommends ‘writing a letter of what you would like to say to your pet. Putting your feelings down on paper can be very powerful and therapeutic.’

Finally, don’t be hard on yourself, says Diane. ‘Make sure you look after yourself. It’s a difficult situation so do take time out when you need it.’

A note from Kelly and Darren

We would like to say a massive thank you to Kevin, Sarah, Anna, Kimberley and the nurses at Avon Lodge Veterinary Group. As well as Ian and his team at Chemopet, and everyone at Petplan. Plus, our friends and family, Jan, Colin, Diane, Annie, Paul and to Buster for the lifetime of memories, love and happiness he gave us all.

If your pet is diagnosed with a life-threatening condition, you can contact the Blue Cross Pet Bereavement Support Service on 0800 096 6606 (bluecross.org.uk/pet-bereavement-and-pet-loss). You’ll also find regional counsellors (including Shona and Kate) listed on theralphsite.com

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