Four-legged patients need temporary homes
By Karen Millard
Nobody likes to spend time in the hospital. That’s why the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) is hoping to increase its roster of volunteers willing to offer a home-away-from-home to pets undergoing radiation therapy.
When it opened in November 2004, the WCVM’s oncology radiation unit became the only facility in Western Canada able to treat small animals for cancer. In its first year of operation, the unit delivered treatment to dogs and cats from all four western provinces. Staff currently see an average of two to three animals per day, but anticipate that number rising as word of the unit spreads among referring veterinarians. “Right now,” says veterinarian Candace Grier, “they don’t know radiation therapy is an option.”
The more fortunate animals have been sent to the WCVM for full-course radiation treatment – therapy that offers a good probability of long-term remission or cure. And since the treatments typically last three to four weeks, staff try to place out-of-town animals in foster care, a program initiated by Monique Mayer, assistant professor in charge of Radiation Oncology in the Small Animal Clinical Sciences Department.
“You have to understand they’re not sick animals when they arrive,” Mayer explains. “Most of them bounce in here feeling pretty good.”
Clinic staff do their best to make the experience a pleasant one for the animals by providing mats and chew toys, and, when possible, allowing them out of their kennels to roam the office area, she says. Still, it’s no fun being in the hospital. The confinement, Mayer believes, could affect the animal’s mental state, and the outcome. “If they’re happier, they’ll do better in treatment,” Mayer says, and what makes them happy is to be in a loving home.
One person with first-hand fostering experience is Amanda Campbell, a final year veterinary student who cared for Copper, a chocolate lab from Calgary, while he underwent treatment for multiple myeloma. The dog slept beside Campbell’s bed and sometimes, when she arrived to pick him up before his sedation wore off, “he would struggle, trying to get up, until I went and sat with him,” she says. “Then he would relax. He was very attached to me, and I to him.”
“The owners definitely do better,” adds Radiation Therapist Erica Cullen. “I think a lot of clients would find it difficult to go through with the treatment if they knew their pet had to stay in a cage for a month.” Knowing the animal is in the comfort of a home environment, she says, gives them peace of mind.
Since the unit did its first treatment, on Mister the cat who was fostered by WCVM Dean Charles Rhodes and his wife, 25 pets have received full-course radiation therapy. Bailey, a female pug from Calgary, couldn’t bear to be separated from her brother Riley so the two were fostered together while Bailey received treatment for a mast cell tumour, says Mayer. Toby, a golden retriever from B.C., underwent radiation therapy for a nasal tumour, but also had sore hips that prevented him from climbing stairs. He spent his nights in his foster family’s living room, comforted by his foster dad sleeping right beside him on the couch.
“Fosters develop such a connection with the animal,” Cullen says. “There are almost always tears at the parting. They’ve all found the experience rewarding.”
To inquire about volunteering for the WCVM’s radiation therapy foster program, contact any member of the radiation therapy team at 966-1894.
Karen Millard is a Saskatoon freelance writer