Bosco was over eleven years old when he was diagnosed with bone cancer. That is close to the maximum lifespan of an Anatolian Shepherd Dog. He also had arthritis in his back legs and hips, and as years had passed the treatment for that had become less effective. We knew he was not a good candidate for surgery.
He relied too much on his front legs to be able to lose one, and even limb-sparing surgery would’ve weakened the leg.
We decided to keep him comfortable and happy. We were amazed at how easy this was, and how many wonderful weeks we had together, after we started using transdermal Fentanyl.
Fentanyl is the generic name for a powerful opiate used to control pain in humans as well as cats and dogs. A controlled substance, it is available only by prescription and may need to be purchased directly at a pharmacy, not a veterinarian’s office. We used it in its transdermal form, which is a patch that adheres to the skin. The patch delivers the drug at a constant rate over three days.
There are serious risks associated with Fentanyl use in dogs. It can interfere with the dog’s ability to breathe. It can cause the cardiovascular system to collapse. It can be very dangerous if used along with other opiates. In addition, the package insert warned that it must not be used to treat post-operative pain in dogs; it is only for controlling the chronic pain associated with cancer.
The warnings frightened us. But we had to do something, because he was obviously in pain. After one day with the patch he had improved so dramatically that people started doubting he had cancer. His ability to move, his behavior, everything about him was like there was nothing wrong at all. When the three days for the patch ran out, we got another one. We just kept changing them, every three days, and he was a happy, mobile dog. After all the trauma of the cancer diagnosis and seeing him unable to walk, these weeks were unapologetically a time of true joy.
It is very important that the patch be placed somewhere where it won’t fall off, and where the dog can’t eat it. Our pharmacist warned us not to shave the area where we would apply it, because it shouldn’t come in contact with broken skin. That meant we needed either to clip the fur to a quarter or half an inch close to his skin or to find places where his fur was naturally fairly thin. Whatever place we chose also had to be out of his reach. As time passed it got more and more difficult to find suitable areas. Pulling the old patches off was traumatic. The adhesive that makes it so easy to apply (it just adheres to the dog’s fur and starts working, sending in the drug through his skin) can cause trouble when it’s taken off. As soon as we’d yanked it away we would saturate the area with aloe, and all would be quickly forgotten.
After four weeks passed his condition started to deteriorate. His limping got steadily worse until it was like it’d been before we started the treatment. The vet had told us to expect this; the medicine would not work forever. As the cancer progresses it destroys the bone, so eventually there will be too much pain to expect a drug to prevent it all. The four good weeks it gave him was much more time than anyone had thought he would have.
This drug was a miracle for us, because we got a whole month to enjoy Bosco and to say goodbye. It is very expensive, unfortunately, but we decided to worry about that after he was gone.
One caveat about Fentanyl use in dogs. There is a site out there, which I reference in my links, that discusses a dog that may have been killed by it. It’s a narcotic, most famously used by Timothy Leary, I believe, and in the case I’m referring to the dog was not a very good candidate for it. It’s really best for the terminally ill, but in this case it was given for post-operative pain to an otherwise healthy dog. I just let you know so you can be careful.
See also: Pet Diapers