Chemo improves last years of pets' lives

The lumps under Jenny Bird's jaw started small, just the size of a pea. But soon they grew so large that they were restricting the big Chesapeake Bay retriever's breathing.

The lumps under Jenny Bird's jaw started small, just the size of a pea. But soon they grew so large that they were restricting the big Chesapeake Bay retriever's breathing.

Jenny Bird had lymphoma, a type of cancer that typically kills pets within months.

Bob and Kathy Wolfe, however, weren't ready to give up on their12-year-old dog just yet. There were too many good memories -- like the time Jenny Bird consented to pulling some kids on a toboggan during a winter party. After that first ride, Jenny Bird lay down and chewed her harness to bits.

So they turned to Dr. Roger Pitts, a Duluth veterinarian who has built a large part of his practice on providing chemotherapy treatment for pets. The treatment won't take away the cancer but often forces it into remission for a year or longer.

"A year is a long time in a dog's life," Pitts said.


Cancer therapy for pets has been around since the 1980s, but when Pitts arrived in Duluth in 1991, no one was doing such a thing here. Today, more and more pet owners are willing to give the expensive therapy a try.

"Our dogs are our kids," said Janet Keough of Duluth. When the Keough's golden retriever Nyssa -- taken from the Latin name for a swamp tupelo tree -- developed bone cancer in 2002, they went first to the University of Minnesota, where Nyssa's affected leg was amputated, and then to Pitts for therapy.

After a few months of treatment, Nyssa's cancer retreated. She lived for 3½ more years before developing lung cancer.

"It's devastating when it happens," Janet Keough said. "But she had a very good quality of life after she recovered. Even the chemotherapywasn't that hard on her."

Pitts administers the same chemotherapy drugs used by humans, including prednisone and vincristine, but in much lower doses. As an internal medicine specialist, he does referral work for several area veterinary clinics. Pets -- usually dogs, though cats also can be treated -- don't lose their hair and usually don't have other visible side effects from cancer treatment. A course of chemotherapy can last four to six months and cost several thousand dollars.

"Money is a consideration for a lot of people," Pitts said. "But for most people, the biggest concern is how their dog is going to feel."

The trick is to give just enough medication to target the cancer but not enough to cause serious side effects.



That also means that the cancer will not be "cured," Pitts said. For pets with lymphoma, one of the most common cancers, successful treatment typically doubles their life expectancy after a cancer diagnosis, from four to six months to a year or longer.

Melanie Grune of Duluth had Pitts treat two pets for lymphoma, a cat and her golden retriever, Pepsi. The cat hadn't responded well to the treatment, but when Pepsi showed signs of lymphoma, too, Grune was ready to try again.

For Pepsi, it worked. Pepsi tolerated the treatment well, and that was important for Grune.

"With chemo in humans, and people feeling sick and vomiting all the time -- I didn't want to do that to my pet," Grune said. "They wouldn't understand."

Grune continued to walk the retriever three miles a day until about a month before he died.

"We had him for over a year," Grune said. "All but the last week or so, you wouldn't have known he was sick. That was the good part."


Jenny Bird is a friendly beast of a dog, still weighing in at 75 pounds but about 20 pounds less than in her prime. Last week, she paced around a small exam room at the North Shore Veterinary Hospital in Duluth, stopping often to snuffle at Pitts' coat pocket and trying to catch his eye.


"Her appetite is good, her stools are good?" Pitts asked the Wolfes as Jenny Bird looked up at him. "I'd like to think this means Jenny likes me," Pitts told a visitor, "but she knows I'm standing near the treat drawer."

Nonetheless, his patients' owners often spoke of Pitts' kind, gentle manner with their animals, and his persistence in trying to find a treatment that works.

Pitts had tried several other medications with little success before finding a combination that targeted Jenny Bird's cancer. Her lymph nodes had shrunk, and Jenny Bird was finally gaining weight. This time it was a slow injection of "big red," a crimson-colored drug called doxorubricin.

It took three people to lift Jenny Bird onto the examination table and steady the dog as Pitts inserted a catheter into her leg.

"Stay, Birdy," Kathy Wolfe said soothingly. Bob Wolfe stood at Jenny Bird's head, his hands roaming over the dog's face. At one point Bob, who was absorbed in watching the injection, began rubbing the dog's eye instead of her muzzle. Jenny didn't flinch.

But she was more than ready to go home when her appointment was over. A few last treats from Dr. Pitts, instructions to keep up with the prednisone tablets, and Jenny Bird was out the door. Back at her Lakewood home nestled in the woods, Jenny would rest for a bit before going on an afternoon walk.

The frequent and expensive trips to the veterinarian, the bouts of incontinence and the worry will have been worth it if the chemotherapy gives the Wolfes what they are hoping for.

"One more winter, one more spring, maybe one more summer," Kathy Wolfe said.


JANNA GOERDT covers the communities surrounding Duluth. She can be reached weekdays at (218) 279-5527 or by e-mail at .

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