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When Fido gets cancer: B.C.’s first radiation centre for pets opens

Victoria is now home to the only radiation oncology centre for animals in British Columbia.

In the basement of a newly built building in Victoria sits a unique piece of equipment that doesn't exist anywhere else in British Columbia—radiation technology for pets that have been diagnosed with cancer.

Dr. Genevieve Hammond is proud to the point of almost being giddy to explain the state-of-the-art machine. 

"This the vault. It really is a vault," she says. "It's a room with very, very thick walls so that no radiation escapes from the room, and behind me is our linear accelerator."

Before the VCA Canada Central Victoria Veterinary Hospital opened its new building, people would have to travel far distances to receive radiation therapy for their animals.

"We built this facility specifically so we could open a cancer centre here in Victoria," says Hammond. "There is tons and tons of needs for people to have cancer therapy for their pets locally, and before this, people were having to travel either down to Washington or out to Calgary."

The launch wasn't an easy feat. The room had to meet high safety standards so no radiation could escape the facility, and construction was lengthy and expensive.

"The equipment is also very specialized to buy and maintain, and then the amount of training and the size of the team it takes to run the facility is not really possible to have everywhere," says Hammond, noting a clinic needs to have a board-certified radiation oncologist on staff to offer the therapy.

There are only two board-certified radiation oncologists in all of B.C.—Hammond and Dr. Sarah Charney at Boundary Bay Veterinary in Langley, which does not have radiation oncology technology to offer treatment on-site.

"Radiation oncology is something that is further behind in the veterinarian field than it is in the human field, but is certainly something that is used commonly," says Hammond. 

Charney believes there is a need for the facility in Vancouver, but finding the appropriate space and funding can be challenging. 

"The construction costs on the vault are generally over a million dollars, and the machine itself is between a quarter of a million and a half a million," she says. 

Radiation oncology is used in conjunction with surgery, or when a tumour cannot be removed through other methods, and lastly, for pain relief. 

"Masses that can't be removed or that are prohibiting them from playing or eating or being their happy selves — we can make a huge, huge difference to how they feel and very, very quickly," says Hammond. 

The primary goal of the treatment is to improve the quality of life of their clients, say both specialists.

"In veterinarian oncology, we don't tend to aim for a cure. Really what we are trying to do for all of our patients is to improve their quality of life," says Charney. "We know that if we improve their quality of life, they will ultimately live longer."

About 50 per cent of animals that live over the age of 10 will die of cancer, according to Charney.

"Yes, we want to buy as much time as we can, but we want to make sure it is a good time," says Hammond. "With radiation therapy, we can often buy animals good quality time."

Animals are assessed on medical urgency, which means some pets will find themselves on a waitlist. Each day they see anywhere from three to 10 patients a day. 

Various pet insurance companies will cover the treatment if the owner has the right policy. If an owner does not have pet insurance, the treatment can range from $5,000 to $13,000.

"That's been very, very helpful for a lot of families," says Hammond.

Hammond says people will travel from the United States, Yukon and all over B.C. to have the treatment at their facility, which has only been open for a year. 

"There is not a lot of healing that happens after this, so it is really rewarding to be able to help them and help them quickly," she says. 

People can self refer or have a referral from a veterinary facility, and Charney says people should consider their options to make an informed decision.