Skip to main content

The City Journals

Holladay doctors unite for first pet radiation treatment facility in Utah

Dec 10, 2018 02:53PM ● By Lindsey Baxter

Annie and her dog Echo who had HDR and are living a happy and healthy life. (Courtesy of Annie Phenix)

By Lindsey Baxter | [email protected]

Two Holladay doctors have come together for a first-of-its-kind facility to treat cancers in dogs and cats with high dose rate brachytherapy (HDR), a highly effective form of radiation therapy. 

Dr. Clayton Watkins, owner of VetMed Consultants and human radiation oncologist and brachytherapy specialist, and Dr. John K. Hayes, owner of Companion Curietherapy, have over 60 years of combined experience in humans and animals. 

This potent type of radiation therapy delivers radiation by an agile, robotically controlled, radioactive seed that delivers a pinpointed burst of radiation directly into the tumor. This was originally designed to target certain forms of human cancer. The doctors’ collaboration is setting a bold precedent in taking brachytherapy care into veterinary medicine.

“Brachytherapy is a focused intense treatment that has a lot of power at eradicating tumors. To see a bad tumor disappear and leave the pet with no or very mild side effects has been the most rewarding aspect to me,” Hayes said. “To see a pet retain normal function, when the alternative treatment would have caused loss of a limb or body part, has been greatly satisfying. To my knowledge, this is the first collaboration of this kind in the world, and to lead out in something that is revolutionary is a rather humbling challenge.”

“Before we started this, people had to travel out of state at a large expense to use radiation on their pets,” Watkins said. “The nearest anyone could get radiation therapy was in Colorado. What we are doing is less expensive and you don’t have to travel out of state. We also can pinpoint the tumor and provide radiation just to that area and not damage the normal tissue.” 

Annie Phenix sought veterinary care when her border collie, Echo — who had never been sick — suddenly couldn’t walk and seemed disoriented. After medications, different veterinarians, and an ER pet visit, they found a tumor at the front of Echo’s brain and referred her to Colorado State University. Phenix was concerned about the cost of care and the time she would have to be away from home and work. While in Colorado she called Watkins. They came back to Utah, consulted with Watkins, and Echo had radiation the following week. Considering how bad the tumor was, all were fearful she could pass away any day. Now, post treatment, Echo is off steroids and antibiotics and back to her former feisty self.

“I am a human radiation oncologist who has specialized in the part of radiation oncology known as brachytherapy,” Hayes said of his partnership with Watkins. “I bring 35 years of knowledge and experience in this aspect of radiation cancer care to the treatment of animals. Since I am a human doctor, it is my job to be a consultant to Dr. Watkins who is the responsible veterinarian. When treatment is thought to be needed, I advise on how best to perform the operation, and on the dose of radiation. Together we plan and oversee the delivery of the radiation.”

Hayes and Watkins met when a pet owner asked Hayes about radiation for his dog with a tumor in its head. Hayes talked to the primary care vet and was told about Watkins. 

For some time Hayes felt veterinary radiation therapy needed to branch out to include brachytherapy. A phone call to Watkins led to multiple discussions and visits to clinics and operating rooms to see how the treatments are accomplished. This finally led to talks about how to actually treat companion animals. The whole process has taken over three years to come to fruition. The project was approved by the State Veterinarian Board and the State Division of Radiation Control.

Watkins shared that at the beginning when they started, it was very rare they would do this type of treatment (maybe once a month or so). Now, they often do them a couple of times a week and have helped 76 animals in the three years they have been doing this form of radiation. 

“This type of therapy is amazing in the fact that an animal who could have otherwise lost a limb to surgical removal of the tumor can now save that limb and live a normal life,” Watkins said.

Both doctors have their favorite stories of animals they have helped save. 

One was of a Labrador pup with a rare tumor in his jaw bone that would have required removing the jaw bone, leaving the dog very debilitated, including difficulty eating and constant drooling. However, the doctors treated the pup with HDR brachytherapy. The tumor is now gone and he is a healthy grown Lab with no functional deficit and expected to live a normal life. 

Another example is a dog that had a large tumor in his mouth. They shaved it down to help him until they did the therapy and within a week it had grown back to that same size. They completed a single dose of radiation therapy with very precise placement of the catheters to completely cover the tumor. After a month, it was down so much you could barely tell a tumor was there. Now after 11 months, there is no sign of tumor recurrence and the dog is expected to have a normal lifespan.

To find out more information about all the services that VetMed can help with your pet, visit them at https://www.vetmedutahclinic.com or at 6221 South Highland Drive.