Cancer in Pets: Prevention, Diagnosis and Treatment

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These days, hearing about a friend who’s pet has been diagnosed with cancer, or worse, hearing the diagnosis from your own pet’s vet, seems to be less and less rare. It isn’t that the disease is cropping up like wildfire, but rather, due to better veterinary care and living conditions, dogs and cats are living longer lives, and cancer is a disease of the old. Further, veterinarians have better diagnostic and treatment tools than they did just a decade ago, so they are better able to detect the disease. If patients come in for senior or regular pet wellness exams, the higher the likelihood that cancer can be caught early and more easily managed.

I had a chance to speak recently with Dr. Avenelle Turner, Board-Certified Veterinary Oncologist, and a member of the Veterinary Cancer Group Team at the City of Angels Veterinary Specialty Center in Culver City, CA.  Dr. Turner has extensive training in oncologic emergencies, clinical pathology, exotic animal oncology, and grief counseling. I learned a lot about treating cancer in pets from Dr. Turner, and hopefully her knowledge will be helpful to you.

There are a number of different types of cancers, almost too many to count, but the outlook for your pet can be bright if the cancer is detected early. Many pets live long, comfortable lives, after being treated for cancer. “The most common tumor in dogs in cats are dermal tumors, however the most commonly treated cancers at our oncology practice is Lymphoma in dogs and lymphoma and Squamous cell carcinoma in cats.” Dr. Turner says.  Lymphoma, which is a malignant cancer that involves the lymphoid system, can spread and be in many parts of the pet’s body.  As a cancer specialist, Dr. Turner says that of the cases she sees, fully 30% are lymphoma.  A general practitioner veterinarian might see one out of every two or three of  their patients over six (an average senior age) develop some form of cancer.

Oral Squamous Cell Carcinoma is a prevalent form of cancer in cats. This form of cancer is more common in cats that live with smokers, and / or who eat canned foods, or wear flea collars. Yet the risk is reduced by 90% when a cat is regularly bathed with flea shampoo, leading some researchers to believe that a surface toxin is washed away with frequent bathing.

There are some behaviors to watch for as your pet ages, but even nonspecific changes, (ie. he just isn’t well), can be a sign. Be sure to speak to your vet about a pet’s weight loss, changes in appetite or behavior. Also mention any growths or anything new on the skin. Even changes in the way your dog smells could be a sign or he might have difficulty urinating or defecating.  Most things we attribute to “he’s just getting old” is probably not “just.”  Make an appointment and get your pet checked.

If you want to ensure you pet’s best chance at staying healthy, or try to catch disease early, periodic rechecks for senior pets should be every six months instead of every year.  Senior status could start at anywhere from 5 to 10 years of age, depending on the size of your pet.  Larger pets hit their senior stages earlier than smaller ones do.  Early detection is key, as there will always be more treatment options available if disease is caught sooner, Dr. Turner tells me.  This is true of any disease.

Once cancer is diagnosed, treatment will be approached with a goal of removing the cancerous tissue and keeping it from spreading.  Surgery to remove the cancerous tissue will be recommended, and then your veterinarian can evaluate if the cancer has spread, and make a determination in regard to the outlook for your pet. Cancer caught in early stages most often have a more positive outlook than ones that have had time to grow and spread.  Chemotherapy and radiation are also available as treatment options for your pet, and may be used in conjunction with surgery.

Some holistic or homeopathic therapies have touted themselves to be effective in treating cancer, but there are no studies published that confirm those claims. Some of these therapies may increase your pet’s overall comfort during treatment, but should only be considered as an add-on to traditional medical care, not a replacement for it. To ensure you are not adding to the stress your pet might be feeling during cancer treatment, discuss any non-traditional methods with your veterinarian first.

Also experimentally, stem cell transplants in dogs are being done more often. As these operations become more and more successful, they will likely become more available as a treatment option.

“People think cancer is such a debilitating disease, and that it is worse than other geriatric diseases.” Dr. Turner says. “However, if treated, it can be managed and the pet’s quality of life is greatly improved.”

“It’s not a death sentence for sure.”

Veterinarian holding a long haired daschund

Avenelle Turner, DVM, DACVIM (Oncology)

1 Response

  1. Jo Socha says:

    Thank you for posting this I am just getting the news that my Apollo has Lymphoma and he will start chemo next week. I am having a very difficult time with this but your article has helped me to realize it is not a death sentence.