Chemotherapy for cats - does it work? Is it advisable?

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Answered by: Alex, An Expert in the Caring for Cats Category
Chemotherapy for cats.

My cat has cancer. Is chemo the way to go?

My 14 year old cat, who had been vigorous and happy, suddenly started losing his appetite. For a day or two, I could think it was nothing serious. When the condition dragged on, I took him to a vet, who gave him preliminary tests. No disease was detected, but the symptoms persisted, and I took him to another vet. Both vets were good people, full of compassion and sensitivity, without being excessively demonstrative about it. One of the vets worked at an expensive facility, very modern in its layout and equipment, and they charged big prices. The second vet, learned and experienced and thorough, catered to poor people, charged modestly, and worked out of humble real estate.

Both voiced the same suspicions – that my cat might have cancer of the intestine, and that it was in an early stage. Although it was too early for tests to verify the condition, both vets had the sense that my cat was fated to die from the disease. The high-priced vet recommended that I let them do a colonoscopy right away, and if cancer were detected, then to start on chemo. She said that a possible result might be a two-year long remission. The second vet said that he could charge me a lot of money, and do a lot of tests, and end up prescribing chemo once cancer was detected, but he doubted a happy result.

While I was pondering which way to go, there was one event that briefly gave me hope. One day at home I saw my sick cat suddenly rush and pounce on a mouse, which he proceeded to eat every little bit of – the snout, the tail, everything – except for one little pink organ. But it was a one time event. The beast went back to fasting, lethargy and palpable sadness.

This cat had, over the course of his life, shown humor, caring, ingenuity and creativity. He had woven himself into the fabric of our family’s life. We all knew each other’s habits and we were all of a piece. His change from health to sickness was already profoundly affecting us.

We agonized about what to do. Money was in short supply at the time. We were having to budget very carefully. We also questioned the ethics of spending a few thousand dollars on a cat when there are people on the edge. But sometimes you can’t calculate things that way. You have to go by your heart.

After enough of the agonizing, we decided to have our cat undergo colonoscopy, which confirmed the presence of slow-growing intestinal cancer. I took him home and started giving him pills. At first it was a trauma every time, getting a pill down him, and it had to be done twice a day. But within a few days it was an unpleasant but tolerable process, and within a week his appetite started to come back. Within two weeks he was vigorous, and had fully regained his personality. In fact, he seemed better than ever.

On some level, he knew what was going on. He understood this was a long goodbye – and that’s what family life is, ultimately. He was extra affectionate, extra interactive with us and even with guests – he was less shy than he had ever been. He and we rejoiced in the return of his old habits.

After three months of the joy the bottom fell out. He stopped eating again. His sadness returned. He became resistant again to taking the chemo, and he bit me hard a couple of times when I tried to get the pill down him. Finally one morning his breathing got labored. I took him to the vet who said that if I did not have the cat put to sleep he was likely to die in the next few hours. It seemed that they would be hours of pain and misery and no chance for reflection or anything good. So I had the vet inject him while I held him in my arms. He slipped away. Chemotherapy for cats can hold off the grim reaper, but he ultimately comes for each and every one of us.

Was the chemotherapy worth it? Absolutely. It was a beautiful goodbye. If you find yourself in a similar situation, should you do the same? Every situation is different. Maybe you simply can’t afford it (you should look into pet health insurance, so you don’t have to make hard decisions under time pressure). But please consider this, from my example. When your number is up, it’s up, whether you are a cat or a human, but a little extra time can be a great blessing.

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