I love so many things about being a veterinarian- puppy kisses, seeing a sick patient recover to go home to a happy family, you name it. That being said, there are also a few things that I wish were different. Having to deal with dog cancer is one of them.
As one of the leading causes of death in both dogs and cats, working through a cancer diagnosis is one of the most challenging and common problems pet owners face. But here’s the good news: The number of treatment options has skyrocketed in the last few years, thanks to brilliant researchers and some big advancements in immunotherapy. Gone are the days when the options were limited to prednisone or whopping doses of chemotherapy. Pets are living longer and happier with cancer now than they ever have. Let’s review a few things about cancer that every pet owner should know:
Age: It’s kind of a paradox that the better veterinary care becomes, the more cancer we’re seeing. It makes sense when you think about the fact that cancer is a disease associated with age. Sadly though, we do sometimes see cancers in young pets, but by and large the more time your pet has with you on Earth, the greater the chances become that they may face a cancer diagnosis.
Genetics: Some breeds are more prone to certain types of cancers than others. Golden retrievers are notoriously susceptible to lymphoma (a lymph node cancer) and hemangiosarcoma (a cancer of the blood vessels). Scottish terriers, West Highland White terriers, beagles, and Shetland sheepdogs show higher numbers of bladder cancer. Brachycephalic dogs- ie any dog with a smushed face like pugs, are more likely to develop brain cancers.
What about diet? That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? Cancer is a complicated disease with many contributing factors, and the truth is we just don’t know how much of a role food plays in dog cancer. We do know from human medicine that certain foods or food additives are more likely to contribute to cancer, and other foods or nutrients may be protective. This is why choosing a healthy diet is so important. You want to reduce as many risk factors as possible, even if they’re ones we never see. That’s why our premium dog food is formulated with the finest ingredients that help your dog achieve and maintain optimal health.
Age, diet, and breed are never a guarantee of a pet getting cancer- thank goodness. But it’s always good to keep in the back of your mind so if your pet exhibits any changes in health or behavior, you know to get it checked sooner rather than later.
Signs to Look Out For
Cancer is tricky because it’s not one specific disease. As the uncontrolled growth of a mutated cell, the behavior varies quite a bit depending on the type of cancer, the location, and the overall health of the patient. These signs exist in other illnesses as well, so just because your pet exhibits one or more does not mean it’s cancer- but it does mean you should check in with the vet!
- Change in appetite. A Labrador who normally inhales his kibble in ten seconds flat suddenly leaves kibble in the bowl every night? That’s not normal.
- Sleeping more. A pup who usually zooms around the house all day suddenly curls by your feet for hours at a time? Might be worth getting checked out. It could be a behavior change related to owners spending more time at home, so we’ll hope for that!
- Sudden swellings. Anything bulging that shouldn’t be bulging- get it checked out ASAP. A tiny lump or bump on the skin? Here’s what oncologist Dr. Sue Ettinger recommends:
If a lump is:
Then it should be checked out! Caught early, even some of the most aggressive cancers can be treated easily- but the longer you wait, the harder it becomes.
- Bigger than a pea
- Present for more than a month
- Non-healing sores. People often say “spider bite” any time a pet has a red or ulcerated lesion on their body. It rarely is. Even if it’s not cancer, any ulcerated skin is going to be painful, so no matter the cause, get it looked at!
- Really anything else out of the ordinary. You know your pet better than anyone. Coupled with the increased time you’re spending at home in their company, people are 100% spotting conditions they might otherwise have missed.
Dog cancer is scary. As someone who's been through it more times than I’d ever wish, I understand and appreciate the natural response of being scared, and grieving. But the one thing you should know is that cancer is not an automatic death sentence. Years ago, many people had the opinion that if a pet was diagnosed with cancer, therapy was a waste of time and money. Times have changed.
While the treatment and life expectancies vary tremendously, many cancers can be managed almost like a chronic disease. With supportive care and a carefully crafted treatment plan, pets can live comfortably for months or sometimes even years. Recent advances in immunotherapy are showing incredible promise. A lymphoma vaccine? A melanoma treatment? Things that were considered untreatable just a few years ago are now on the verge of having very effective treatments. If your dog is diagnosed with cancer, ask the vet if anyone nearby is participating in clinical trials your pet may qualify for. The Veterinary Cancer Society has a list of trials.
No one considers what’s going on in the world a blessing, but since so many of us are spending more time at home anyway, you might as well use some of that time to give your pet a once-over and check for lumps and bumps. While the outcome of a cancer diagnosis is never a given, one thing is for sure: the earlier you know, the better your pet will do.
Stay safe and don’t forget to love on your pets for me, ok?
Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, DVM
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