Chemotherapy: safe handling

Chemotherapy is now a commonplace treatment for cancer in pets. In many people’s mind the term ‘chemotherapy’ conjures up frightening images of people suffering with cancer (and the effects of treatment) – however chemotherapy in pets is usually very different.

Chemotherapy is a highly toxic drug given alone, or in combination with other drugs, to damage and destroy cancer cells. Chemotherapy drugs can kill all cells (healthy ones as well as cancer cells) and great care is necessary when using them. Many vets in practice will refer patients to specialist veterinary oncologists when chemotherapy is being considered.

All chemotherapy drugs are toxic and should not be taken unnecessarily. However, it is important to get the risks into proportion and not to be afraid of managing your pet at home. Whilst the drugs can cause many side effects these are usually seen with large doses or long term use.

If your pet is taking a tablet and you touch that tablet the amount on your hands is unlikely to cause you any side effects even if you put your fingers in your mouth. However, many of the cancer treating drugs can cause cells to mutate. It is essential that pregnant women do not come into contact with these drugs as damage can be done to the foetus. Drugs causing DNA mutations can also cause normal cells to become cancerous.

Some chemotherapy drugs are irritant and can cause reactions or allergies in the skin if touched.

Often you will be asked to give tablets to your pet at home. It is important the drugs are given at regular intervals according to set treatment plans (protocols). Before your pet starts on treatment your vet will need to be sure that you are able to give the drugs regularly and to follow instructions regarding their use.

If you are really concerned about giving treatment at home, share your concerns with your vet. It may be that there is an alternative treatment that your vet can administer for you. These will have to be given in the veterinary hospital and you will need to take your pet for regular treatment appointments.

Many of the drugs can be given with food. Your vet will advise you on the best time and method of giving the drugs. If you give the drug with food always handle them with gloves and put in a small amount of tasty food (that you can be sure your dog will want to eat) in a small dish.

Watch your dog to make sure they eat the food and all of the tablets and then make sure that they do not spit the tablet out again afterwards. The bowl can then be washed up separately before giving your dog the rest of his food.

If you are doubtful whether your pet can be relied on to eat the tablets with food it may be safer to put the tablets straight down the throat. If you do this it is even more important to wear gloves as the protective coating put on some tablets can be dissolved by saliva in your dog’s mouth. If you have not given tablets to your pet before ask your vet to show you how to do this safely and effectively.

Your vet will not allow your pet to go home with you if there are any risks to you from your dog. It is perfectly safe to continue to treat your pet as part of the family and hugging and petting are all permitted. The risks to you come from exposure to the drug itself. Remember also that the drugs are removed from the body in urine and faeces so there is a potential second risk of exposure.

There is some debate over how long pets can excrete chemotherapy drugs and metabolites in their urine and faeces. Therefore it is sensible to avoid direct contact with waste from your pet while they are receiving chemotherapy.

Once a treatment course has finished, you should maintain the same strict measures that you followed during treatment for a further three weeks. If your dog is having tablets or capsules there may be a risk of exposure to the drugs in these if your dog vomits after treatment. Ensure that you wear protective gloves to clear up any vomit and place all the cloths used for cleaning and gloves in a tied plastic bag with the vomit and place straight in an outside dustbin.