The high costs -- and heartbreak -- of pet cancer

For owners of dogs and cats stricken with cancer, one of the leading causes of death among companion animals over the age of 6, costly treatments only add to the emotional difficulties.

According to Dr. David Vail, a veterinary oncologist who's also a professor at the University of Wisconsin, an initial cancer diagnosis can cost between $1,000 and $2,000. A standard course of chemotherapy costs between $3,000 and $5,000, and radiation treatments used for brain and nasal tumors run between $6,000 and $10,000. Costs vary by region and the type of cancer, among other factors.

Just as with humans, veterinarians are able to cure some types of cancers such as soft tissue sarcoma in dogs, at a cost of about $9,000 for the surgery and follow-up radiation treatments, according to Vail. Dogs diagnosed with lymphoma aren't so lucky. Owners can spend about $5,000 on treatments that would extend their pet's life for about a year or two with little hope of a cure.

"To some of our clients, that expense for one year of quality time is worth it, and for some of our clients, one year simply isn't long enough for a uniformly fatal disease," Vail said in an interview.

Of course, for some pet owners, money is no object. For instance, more than 70 owners of dogs stricken with lymphoma spent between $16,000 and $25,000 at North Carolina State University on bone marrow transplants.

"They paid out-of-pocket," said Dr. Steve Suter, the veterinary oncologist who did the procedures and noted that the cure rate was about 33 percent. "They just came up with the money. They used their savings, refinanced their houses."

Suter had to shut down the program in 2012 because he said the hospital needed the staff in other areas. He plans to reopen it again next year. Meanwhile, he has referred more than 100 clients to the three other U.S. clinics that are doing canine bone marrow transplants.

Spending on cancer is one of the reasons Americans are expected to lay out $15.7 billion in vet care in 2015, more than double the $7.1 billion in 2001, according to the American Pet Products Association. Petplan, a Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, pet insurance company, said it's seeing rising claims for pet cancers.

"Because of advances in diagnostics and vet/owner awareness, we're finding more illnesses to be caused by cancer than we have been previously," wrote Jules Benson, Petplan's chief veterinary medical officer, in an email. "Not only are more pets being treated for cancer-related diseases, but the costs per pet are increasing, too," he added.

Swedish-based pharmaceutical company Oasmia Phamaceutical, which makes one of the three Food & Drug Administration-approved cancer treatments for dogs, estimates the size of the market at $500 million.

The FDA last year conditionally approved Oasmia's Paccal VET-CA to treat dogs with certain types of skin and mammary gland cancers. The company is conducting Phase 1 trials of Doxophos, a therapy for lymphoma, the most common type of cancer in dogs.

"We are basically ... one of the first in this market," said Julian Aleksov, Oasmia's executive chairman of the board, in an interview from Sweden. "Things will start moving, but it will take some time."

Besides Oasmia's treatment, the FDA has approved Palladia for treatment of mast cell tumors and Oncept, a vaccine for canine melanoma. Dogs are also treated with medicines developed for humans. Although the FDA hasn't approved any cancer drugs for cats, they're also treated with the same sorts of therapies.

Exact statistics on pet cancer are hard to come by because there are only about 300 or so veterinary oncologists in the whole country. The disease is common in midsize to large breeds, such as golden retrievers and Great Danes. It's slightly less common in cats, though about 20 percent of them will be stricken in their lifetimes.

Human and animal cancer research is done mostly separately, but Cornell scientist Dr. Kristy Richards argues that the two disciplines have much to learn from each other. A "human "oncologist" by training, Richards also has an appointment with Cornell's College of Veterinary Medicine. "Almost as many dogs get cancer as people get cancer," said Richards.

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    Jonathan Berr is an award-winning journalist and podcaster based in New Jersey whose main focus is on business and economic issues.