Dig deep to help pets with cancer at your veterinary practice

Dig deep to help pets with cancer at your veterinary practice

Use these seven tips to offer support for pet owners when they face the pressure of a beloved pet's cancer diagnosis.
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Feb 01, 2013

Few words weigh heavier than this six-letter word: cancer. Though the word is small in size its meaning can release an avalanche of feelings for pet owners that may spring from their own experiences with cancer, especially if they've witnessed a loved one fight a cancer battle.

An important part of our job is comforting clients and aiding in the grieving process. Clients rely on us to create the perfect balance of lending a kind ear and offering supportive words when desired, but not being over-talkative at the wrong times. They also want team members to help them make treatment decisions without becoming overbearing or judgmental as they make their ultimate decision.

Unfortunately, we don't all possess a natural ability when we face these difficult situations. But we can learn critical skills that ease the way as we help pet owners navigate their pet's serious illness.

As team members, we may also struggle with loss and terminal illness and may at times feel that we're unable to give. When we relay a diagnosis of cancer to clients, it's important to remember most pet owners don't know that cancer therapies are much different in animals. Many clients associate chemotherapy with painful experiences involving relatives who were nauseated and felt miserable every day. It's important to dispel these notions during conversations regarding a cancer diagnosis. Remember, cancer is one of the most treatable conditions of all chronic diseases. The realm of cancer treatment is constantly growing, now including a xenogenic DNA vaccine for canine oral melanoma and tyrosine kinase inhibitors used for treatment of mast cell tumors. The past five years has also brought more effective ways to manage nausea, including maropitant.1

Consider these seven steps to delve into a pet's cancer diagnosis and help ease the burden pet owners feel:

1 Get the lay of the land

It's important to ease into this conversation. Consider the client's perspective. There's nothing worse than having someone spring depressing and unexpected news on you. It's true that some clients prefer a direct approach, and they seek forthright veterinarians. However, many people need to emotionally prepare themselves for this discussion and slowly absorb the information. By the same token, most owners aren't terribly fond of team members who beat around the bush to a fault. In these cases, clients may find it hard to realize the gravity of the situation and determine how to respond.

To introduce the conversation, explain that you've found something concerning. While the doctor will take the lead in this conversation, it's important to support the setting your veterinarian wants to create by matching the doctor's tone and demeanor. This helps prepare clients for tough news. Consider these steps:

> Stay seated at clients' level. Don't tower over them across an exam table. It may help to position yourself where you can easily move yourself closer to clients to hold a hand or offer a hug.

> Eliminate barriers between clients and yourself and make eye contact.

> Stay focused on the conversation. You don't want to be thinking about the next appointment, your evening plans, or reading off a chart. Focus completely on clients and their needs.

For additional assistance, look to Colorado State University's Argus Institute, which provides support for pet owners making quality-of-life assessments and euthanasia decisions and those in need of grief counseling. The institute is comprised of veterinarians and mental health professionals who work toward the goal of standardizing the emotional care provided by veterinary hospitals so that clients' experiences will be more predictable. Be mindful at the same time that this conversation doesn't necessarily need to be a negative, gloomy one. There are many options now to treat cancer patients.