One morning in January my dog Dennis started to limp. He held up his right paw to show me something was wrong. At first I wasn’t particularly concerned as he often steps on a thorn or rock and limps for a few days. But after a week the limp didn’t improve and I made an appointment with Dr. Tim Johnson at the Johnson Veterinary Clinic.
Believing it could be arthritis since Dennis will be 10 this summer, Johnson has prescribed anti-inflammatory and pain reliever drugs. Although the medication seemed to be helping a little, Dennis hobbled on and was in obvious pain.
An X-ray was the next step. Johnson warned me that the x-ray could show the problem was bone cancer – a disease that is generally fatal. The morning after Valentine’s Day, I took Dennis to the office. Johnson gave him an anesthetic to perform the procedure. When I came back a few hours later, Johnson showed me the X-ray that told the story I didn’t want to hear. The bone over Dennis’s right foot looked “moth-eaten,” as Johnson described it. The area was bright in contrast to the dense bone around it, a marker of bone cancer.
Very often, if discovered, bone cancer in animals has spread to the organs and is quickly fatal. In either case, the usual treatment is amputation followed by chemotherapy. Johnson recommended Dennis for amputation because he’s a large 100 pound dog.
I spent a dreary week seeing Dennis walking less and less. One day he stopped eating, which worried me as I knew it could be a sign of the end of life. It turned out he had colitis, an inflammation of the colon, possibly due to one of the medications he was taking. I spoke to Johnson, who advised them to stop taking the medication, and gradually Dennis began to eat again.
The picture improved the following week when I had an initial telephone consultation with Dr. Jeannette Kelly, DVM at Veterinary Cancer Care in Santa Fe. She let me know that there are some alternative treatments for bone cancer that looked promising. When I checked their website, I saw that their practice was part of several clinical trials exploring new approaches to canine cancer.
When asked about the typical approach to animal bone cancer, Megan Padget, Senior Oncology Nurse and Operations Manager at Veterinatry Cancer Care said, “Amputation is still a standard of care. Unfortunately, for various reasons, this is not an option for all patients, too for various reasons.” Cost, patient weight, patient size, location of the cancer (for example, the foreleg), and the client’s concerns. Amputation is effective in treating pain because it removes the tumor that is causing the pain. However, osteosarcoma has a high likelihood of lung metastasis [spreading to the lungs]So that doesn’t necessarily mean you beat cancer. Bone-sparing surgery that removes part of the bone can also help relieve pain. However, we see that the surgical site often collapses, creating a need for wound management that can be costly and painful over time for the pet. “
Visit to Veterinary Cancer Care
In late February, Dennis and I made the two-hour drive to the Santa Fe Veterinary Cancer Treatment Office. It’s a friendly, cage-free environment and several dogs roamed the halls, including Dr. Kelly’s dogs: Great Dane Dakota and Pitbull Mix Kai.
The first step was to get another x-ray to confirm the diagnosis and an ultrasound to see if the cancer was spreading to the organs of the body. Blood was drawn to check for imbalances and vitamin deficiencies. Before taking this step, the staff submitted the prices for approval.
The ultrasound showed no evidence that the cancer had spread – a tremendous relief. After discussing the options, the staff performed two treatments.
The first was zoledronate, which is given intravenously. It is a bisphosphonate, a drug used to prevent loss of bone density.
“Zoledronate draws calcium from the blood and carries it to the bone,” explained Padget. “This helps rebuild the bone that was destroyed by the cancer and relieves bone pain. This is a great treatment option if amputation is not chosen.”
The other treatment was electrochemotherapy, in which chemotherapy is administered in tiny doses with electrical probes. It slows the growth of the cancer and usually makes the area feel better within a day or two. “Electrochemotherapy is growing in popularity in the US, but has been popular in Europe for some time. It offers a gentler, cheaper alternative to radiation,” said Padget.
To my amazement and relief, Dennis felt better the next day. He began to put weight on his right paw and walked more through the yard. Within a few days we were doing parts of one of our regular hikes again and he seemed to be in less pain.
We will be returning to Veterinary Cancer Care about once a month to monitor its progress and continue treatments.
When we left the clinic, we took home a variety of nutritional supplements, including powders, pills, and liquids, that were used to relieve pain, slow down cancer, and aid overall health.
We also picked up a handout called “A Simple Guide to Dog Diet”. Recommended approaches include home cooking or special diets for better nutrition. The handout describes the type of food a dog needs every day, with 75 to 88 percent of that being protein with organ meat and 10 to 20 percent of the food being fruit and vegetables with less than 10 percent carbohydrates.
One way to approach this type of feeding is to order prepared meals from a place like Marty’s Meals in Santa Fe. They offer raw and gently cooked meals along with bones and other foods that provide high quality, non-genetically modified meat that is organic whenever possible. There is a special gently cooked cancer diet developed by a veterinarian that includes boar, sweet potato, mushrooms, flax, and other ingredients. Marty’s Meals can send the frozen food to Taos.
When asked what is more important, treatments, supplements or foods, Padget said, “Everyone has a role. Bone cancer has a high rate of lung metastases. Anecdotally, we see a slower progression to the lungs when we use integrative methods: To the body of the In keeping your entire pet as healthy as possible, parts like the immune system, skin, muscles, and gastrointestinal tract help fight cancer more effectively. “
Eight months ago Ruth Waterhouse noticed that her dog Sonja was limping. Waterhouse is a longtime Taos resident and former co-owner of Alley Cantina. She volunteered at Stray Hearts, where she met Sonja, and now volunteers at the Equine Spirit Sanctuary. Waterhouse estimates that Sonja is around 10 years old and knows from genetic testing that she is half American Staffordshire Terrier, quarter boxer, and a mix of other breeds.
When Sonja went to see a local vet, the problem was diagnosed as arthritis. Waterhouse took Sonja to an arthritis specialist in Colorado and the diagnosis was different: bone cancer of the shoulder and sacral areas. “It was during COVID and I was waiting outside when they called me from the clinic and told me the diagnosis. The vet offered to drop Sonja immediately. I said, ‘My dog will go home with me.’ I was really down, “said Waterhouse.
Upon their return to Taos, Waterhouse found Dr. Heather Fox, a mobile vet who offers some Eastern approaches like herbs and acupuncture. Fox recommended that Waterhouse contact Veterinary Cancer Care.
“First, we wanted to see Dr. Kelly in Santa Fe every week for treatments like chemotherapy and zoledronate,” said Waterhouse. “Now we go about every four weeks. Sonja’s laboratory work has remained stable and her enlarged lymph nodes have shrunk by 70 percent. I never asked Dr. Kelly about Sonja’s life expectancy, but after a few months she began to call Sonja the miracle dog . “
Treatment costs are a problem. Waterhouse is concerned about the ongoing costs of treatments, supplements, and special diets for Sonja and others in the same situation.
For x-ray, ultrasound, electrochemotherapy, and zoledronate treatments, plus a bag of nutritional supplements, my first visit, like most medical treatments, was expensive. The staff do their best to help people find approaches that fit their budget.
“Nobody is turned away,” said Dr. Kelly. “We’re trying to find cheaper alternatives for those who need them.” Front office manager Blair Bolz stated that only about 10 percent of their customers have pet insurance. Clinic staff work with staff to create payment plans and submit applications for CareCredit. This allows employees to pay over time and instructs them to grant pet care programs.
The supplements and specialty meals also add to the cost, although places like Marty’s Meals work with people to find affordable alternatives, like buying good quality meat in bulk or mixing their meals with nibbles.
Today Sonja plays with her toys and has a good life with Waterhouse. Although she limps occasionally, she is generally in good health. In addition to the treatments with Dr. Kelly takes Sonja about 15 different vitamins and food supplements and receives a special diet that focuses on protein. Waterhouse makes bone broth for Sonja and continues to work with Dr. Fox, who, according to Waterhouse, is an invaluable part of the team. “I’m thinking now that our goal was not to cure cancer, but to treat it. The goal was to keep her comfortable and happy,” said Waterhouse.
Sonja’s continued health is a source of inspiration to me as I have been leading my best friend’s treatment journeys, supplements and food, cost, and most importantly, my best friend’s health concern for the past nine years.
To learn more about Veterinary Cancer Care, visit vetcancercare.com or call 505-982-4492. Marty’s Meals website is martysmeals.com or by calling 505-467-8162. On site, Unleashed carries groceries from Marty’s meals. Call ahead to see what they have in stock: 575-613-7344.