Having raised and bred show dogs, Lisa Peterson knew there was something wrong with her 9-year-old Norwegian elkhound Basia when she put her up on the table to groom her -- and noticed something unusual in the dog's mammary chain.
"It was a lump that was getting bigger; it was suspicious," she said.
Peterson took Basia to her veterinarian, who scheduled exploratory surgery. But on the day of the operation, it was already too late. Basia had cancer, and the tumor was already too big to be operated on. And she had to be put down.
Peterson's experience is not unusual when it comes to a type of tumor known as canine cutaneous mast cell tumors, which account for roughly one-fifth of all skin tumors in dogs. And they often are deadly.
But now a new drug -- the first to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat cancer in dogs -- may soon change that outcome for some pet owners.
Palladia, manufactured by Pfizer Animal Health, has elicited optimism from veterinarians and pet owners alike.
"It is a real breakthrough for a cancer drug to be made specifically for animals," said Lawrence McGill, a veterinary pathologist at ARUP Laboratories in Salt Lake City, Utah.
"Hopefully, this is the start of many products coming forward so that we can help pets with cancer. I strongly suspect that veterinary medicine will continue to utilize human anti-cancer drugs where appropriate, but new drugs directed towards improving the health and welfare of dogs, cats and other pets will be greatly utilized and appreciated," he said.
The fast-growing nature of canine cutaneous mast cell tumors makes them particularly dangerous, veterinary experts say.
"Unfortunately, this tumor can double in size overnight," said Gregory K. Ogilvie, a veterinary oncologist in Southern California.
This type of cancer can be lethal for other reasons as well.
"The tumor is unlike any other in that it releases chemicals in the bloodstream that can cause swelling, inflammation, bruising bleeding, stomach ulcers and therefore anemia and significant abdominal pain," Ogilvie said.
For these reasons, many owners view the new option as a godsend. Peterson noted that the approval of the drug shows "companies catering to consumers' needs to care for their pets at a high level," as well as a shift in many people's attitudes toward dogs.
"I think it shows that in our culture, dogs are really considered valued family members," said Peterson.
Assuming pet insurance will cover the cost of the drug, Peterson said, "It's going to be win-win for the pet owner who needs to care for their animal should they get cancer."
Insurance and cost remain a concern, but it is too soon to tell whether it should be.
Ogilvie said he and other veterinarians spoke with Pfizer officials who were trying to determine a fair price for the drug.
"From the veterinary community, the hope is it will be affordable for the average client for many months, if not years of therapy, and the company has assured us that it will be," he said.
Rick Goulart, a spokesman for Pfizer Animal Health, confirmed that a price has not been set. He said that the drug was currently available, but only through veterinary oncologists, who are attempting to figure out the best protocol for administering the drug. Because of this testing, the drug is provided to the oncologists without cost.