Cancer in Pets 101

Encina Veterinary Hospital’s board certified veterinary oncologist, Dr. Stephen Atwater, has taken some time to answer some questions that many pet owners may have regarding cancer in their pets.

Why did you decide to specialize in oncology and how rewarding is it to you?
I had the opportunity to be part of a world renowned oncology program at Colorado State University. It was such an honor to be a part of that program which has helped to develop treatments for cancer in people. Practicing veterinary oncology is extremely rewarding. I get the opportunity to work with very dedicated owners to help extend their pet’s lives providing owners and their pets additional good quality time together.

What are some common options for treatment when a pet is diagnosed with cancer (including holistic/diet)?
The common types of treatments of cancer in animals include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
Holistic treatments exist as well, but are largely unproven in their benefit. Diet recommendations include feeding a high fat, good quality protein, low carbohydrate diet. Supplementing diets with omega 3 fatty acids and amino acids such as glutamine and arginine are also recommended. Although in theory this is advised, the true beneficial effects of diet are uncertain.

What are some types of cancers you commonly see and treat?
The most common tumors that I see and treat include lymphoma, mast cell tumors, hemangiosarcomas, bone cancer and soft tissue sarcomas.

How is cancer typically treated at Encina Veterinary Hospital?
Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation are the most common treatments for cancer in pets.

Are the chemotherapy drugs used on pets the same as the ones used on humans?
Most of the drugs used to treat cancer in animals are the same drugs that are used to treat cancer in people.

When a human undergoes chemotherapy, they seem to suffer a lot (nausea, lethargic, etc); do our pets suffer this same way when they undergo treatments?
Animals that receive chemotherapy typically tolerate the treatments well. In veterinary medicine, we appreciate that owner’s primary goal in treating their pets is to maintain a good quality of life. If that was not the case, most owners in their right mind would elect to discontinue treatment. As a result, doses of chemotherapy in dogs and cats are designed such that most animals will tolerate the treatment without significant side effects. If side effects do occur, we are quick to address them with medication to control the signs and potential adjustments with future doses to avoid additional side effects.

Can a pet ever be cured of cancer?
There are many types of cancers in animals. Some forms of cancer in animals can be cured with treatment. This is particularly the case with tumors that develop as localized forms of cancer such as soft tissue sarcomas. Many types of cancers that are localized can be cured with wide surgical excision.

Like humans, pets have remission periods. How long do these periods typically last in pets?
Some animals have cancers that are very resistant to treatment and the animal never goes into remission. Others can be cured of their cancer and are in remission for the rest of their lives. Based on the type of cancer and extent of the disease, remission times can vary greatly. It is based on this information that a prognosis can often be provided to owners on what the expectations for their pet is with respect to the likelihood of a response to treatment and for how long.

Does Encina Veterinary Hospital offer clinical trials of cancer treatments?
We do not do clinical trials very often at Encina Veterinary Hospital, but have done some in the past.

Tell us a brief success/happy story of a patient of yours who stands out in your memory.
Maggie is a Shih Tzu that was diagnosed with lymphoma and was treated with a course of chemotherapy. She relapsed about a year after she completed her first treatment and received another course of the same treatment. She never had recurrence of her cancer after the second round of chemotherapy and survived over 10 years from diagnosis of her lymphoma and had to be put down due to non-cancer related causes.

If you would like to schedule an appointment with Encina Veterinary Hospital/East Bay Veterinary Specialists and Emergency’s Board Certified Veterinary Oncologist, Dr. Stephen Atwater, please give us a call at: (925) 937-5000

“Miracle Maggie”

On February 23rd, the world dimmed a little bit and a new star was created in the sky. Maggie, a long time patient of ours, was returned to heaven. We often find that we get attached to many of our patients because so many of them come in so often for their advanced diseases or health conditions, and Maggie was no different. Maggie burrowed her way into all of our hearts and when she passed, we all felt the loss. While we smile knowing that Maggie is healthy and happy, frolicking in the pastures near Rainbow Bridge, we frown because we no longer have her here with us or expect to see her soon.

Her furparents put together a beautiful video dedicated to the celebration that was Maggie. And even if you never met Maggie, we hope you take a moment to remember the wonderful times you’ve had with your furkids who have crossed the Rainbow Bridge and are now another star in the sky shining over us:


A special heartfelt thanks to the doctors and staff at Encina Veterinary Hospital, most especially, to Dr. Stephen Atwater. It is due to Dr. Atwater’s exceptional skills as an oncology specialist that “Miracle Maggie” became one of the most famous patients in Contra Costa County. An additional thanks to Drs. Peter Nurre and Jenifer Wang for their expertise in internal medicine and for helping greatly enhance Maggie’s quality of life in here final years.

The 2011 ACVIM Conference

Dr. Adamo, during his presentation in Denver

Earlier this month, the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine hosted its annual conference in Denver, which brought specialty veterinarians from around the globe together in one place for a meeting of the veterinary minds. We would like to congratulate our very own neurologist Dr. Filippo Adamo for his contribution to the conference, as he presented on “Recent Developments in the Surgical Treatment of Caudal Cervical Spondylomelopathy in Dogs.” What does that mean in plain English, you may wonder? Basically, Dr. Adamo has developed a surgical technique in which he uses an artifical disc of his own design to treat various neurological conditions of the spine, most notably Wobbler’s Syndrome. Dr. Adamo is originally from Italy, and has been with EVH for nearly two years, seeing neurological cases every Monday and Thursday.

Part of Dr. Adamo's Presentation

Other veterinarians from Encina also attended the conference, including Dr. Jenifer Wang and Dr. Stephen Atwater. Continuing education is a requirement for the job of veterinarian, but at Encina we pride ourselves as being on top of current trends in veterinary medicine. Thus, we often take advantage of conferences such as ACVIM to provide our docs with new perspectives.

For more information regarding the ACVIM Conference, please visit their website by clicking here

An interesting article regarding the conference is found here

For more information about Dr. Adamo’s work, and access to his published research, please visit his website BayAreaVNN.com

To schedule an appointment with Dr. Adamo, please call us at (925)937-5000, he is available to see appointments between 10a and 5p Mondays and Thursdays.

Miracle Maggie

Maggie, Politely Asking For Breakfast

One of the most famous patients at Encina is Maggie Della Valle, who has been seeing Dr. Atwater for over 13 years. Though her parents stand out as kind and caring owners, and her sweet countenance makes exams a pleasure, it is Maggie’s medical history that is the cause of her notoriety around the hospital. Maggie was diagnosed with lymphoma at age 3, after her family noticed a mass near her rectum. She was treated with a chemotherapy protocol that typically yields median remission time of 10 months, and a median survival time of 14 months. Although she has come out of remission one time since her original treatment, after two total rounds of chemo she is currently considered to be in complete remission, at the age of 16! As Dr. Atwater says, it is “extremely rare for any dog to survive as long as she has with her disease,” and that she is essentially “cured of her disease, although the word cured is not a certainty, the length of time that the cancer does not appear to have recurred would be considered a cure by some definitions of the word in veterinary medicine.”

View From the Bowl

Maggie and her brother are personal friends of mine, and, trust me, her moxie is definitely still evident! Maggie enjoys eating as much as any Labrador I’ve ever met, and patiently waits for her snack of Charlee Bears treats and boiled chicken at 9pm each evening. We at Encina would like to applaud Maggie for beating the odds, and for disproving the theory that the good always die young.

Kenji and Maggie Hanging Out At Home