A Better Understanding About Chemotherapy in Pets

Hearing the diagnosis of cancer can be truly scary for any pet owner. It can be natural to immediately assume the worst. Over the last 30 years, having a family pet has become a common element of the American household. A survey conducted in 2017 by the APPA, revealed that sixty-eight percent of U.S. households owned a pet.1 That equates to about 85 million families. An increase in pet ownership has also brought a change in the status that our pet holds in our home.

Most of us consider our pets as a vital part of the family. As the relationship between our pets has evolved, so has the quality of veterinary medicine. With medical advancements over the last 30 years, there are a variety of treatments available for our pets that were not available before. This includes treatments for cancer. While providing a complete cure for cancer in our pets is not always attainable, advancements in the field of veterinary oncology have allowed for the profession to make many of the diseases more manageable and allow for an improved quality of life.

Oncology patient Jack pictured with his oncology technician Leighton.

Chemotherapy Side Effects in Pets

Chemotherapy is used to attack rapidly dividing cancer cells. While surgery and radiation are used to target specific areas, chemotherapy has the ability to work throughout the entire body. When owners hear the word “chemotherapy” however, their mind tends to go to all of the horrendous side effects experienced by humans. If your pet should require chemotherapy treatment, their experience will be much different.

Dr. Lorin Hillman is board-certified by the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (ACVIM) in the specialty of veterinary oncology. She has extensive training in all areas of cancer treatment and provides chemotherapy for her patients at Memphis Veterinary Specialists.

“Chemotherapy doesn’t make pets sick like it does in people,” Hillman says. “Less than 10% of pets have any side effects from chemotherapy, and any side effects are usually mild and can be managed with medications at home.”

If your pet should happen to be a part of that small number, owners can possibly expect the following side effects:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Lack of appetite
  • Change in activity level
  • Thinning fur in some breeds

MVS Oncology Suite

MVS Oncology Suite

What to Expect During Your Pet’s Chemotherapy Treatment

Since owners can associate chemotherapy as a scary experience for their pet, we like to reassure them that we will do everything we can to make it a positive experience for them.

“Most of our treatments are done on an outpatient basis, and pets are here with us from 3-6 hours, depending on the treatment needed,” Dr. Hillman says. “We try to make it a positive experience with treats, fluffy blankets, boxes for cats to hide in, and plenty of belly rubs.”

Depending on the type of cancer and the chemotherapy treatment, some of our patients come to see us often enough that they grow to be extremely comfortable and familiar with us. It is not unusual for an owner to tell us that their pet looks forward to coming to their appointments. Since some pets do not enjoy their trips to the veterinarian, it is always our goal to provide an experience that will allow your pet to look forward to their continued visits.

Radiographs, routine bloodwork, and IV catheter placements are common occurrences during our patient’s visits. Our oncology department has their own suite that is dedicated to our chemotherapy patients. These patients are housed in a quiet, low-stress, and comfortable environment during their treatments.

While most of our patients adapt well to their treatments, Dr. Hillman assesses each pet and their personality when deciding on the best treatment plan.

“Maintaining a good quality of life is our most important concern,” she says. “If we start treatment and your pet does not tolerate it well, we can stop. Our goal is to always make it a positive experience for each pet and keep them as comfortable as possible.”

Oncology patient Dinky pictured with his oncology technician Amanda.

If My Pet has Cancer, are They a Candidate for Chemotherapy?

The best way for our oncology team to determine if your pet is a candidate for chemotherapy is by performing a thorough work-up at their initial consultation. While many pets will be eligible for chemotherapy treatment, Dr. Hillman will discuss the best treatment plan for each pet and their family.

“I can examine your pet and discuss any other tests that might be needed and treatment options,” Hillman says. “Some cancers are treated with chemotherapy, such as lymphoma, and some cancers may be treated with surgery, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, and/ or chemotherapy. If the cancer has started to spread (metastasize) then chemotherapy may be recommended.”


More information about Arkansas Veterinary Emergency & Specialists Internal Medicine Department can be found here.


 About Dr. Hillman:

Dr. Lorin Hillman is a 2003 graduate of the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine. She is board-certified by the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (ACVIM) in the specialty of oncology. Dr. Hillman completed an internship at Kansas State University in small animal medicine and surgery, and a three-year medical oncology residency at the University of Illinois. During her residency, she participated in research projects and clinical trials for canine osteosarcoma, canine mast cell disease, and feline oral squamous cell carcinoma. Dr. Hillman is the only board-certified oncologist in the area including western Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi.





  1. https://www.iii.org/fact-statistic/facts-statistics-pet-statistics

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