Pet at the vet.

There are many ways that we can protect our beloved pets and ensure that they live a long and healthy life. Good nutrition, physical and mental stimulation, and disease prevention are well within grasp due to modern veterinary medicine. We are still not at the point, though, that we can shield our four-legged family members from everything.

Just as in people, cancer in pets is a prevalent disease process that we are learning more about every day. As a pet owner, it is important to understand cancer in pets and your role–along with the team at Animal Medical Center–in preventing it where possible and treating it when it occurs. 

Understanding the “C” Word

Cancer is a diagnosis that we hear often, but not necessarily one that people truly understand.

The term cancer truthfully is pretty generic. The word refers to a large variety of diseases that are defined by the development of abnormal cells that divide in an uncontrolled fashion. Cancer has the ability to, but does not always, infiltrate and destroy normal body tissue and/or spread throughout the body.

This means that a diagnosis of cancer can really mean a huge variety of things. Most cancers can be divided into either benign (unlikely to destroy normal tissue or spread) and malignant (often aggressive and infiltrative).

Symptoms of cancer in pets can vary greatly depending on whether they are benign or malignant, what cell type they arise from, and where in the body they are located. Potential symptoms might include:

  • Fatigue
  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Weight loss
  • Distended abdomen
  • Appetite changes
  • Coughing
  • Mobility changes

Of course, many of these symptoms are not specific and depending on the type of cancer not all-inclusive. If you have concerns about your pet, it is always best to contact us for an appointment.

Options for Cancer in Pets

Cancer in pets is not an automatic death sentence. While some types of cancer certainly have a poor prognosis, we are more equipped than ever to treat this often nasty disease.

The first step in combating a cancer diagnosis is knowing what you are dealing with. Proper diagnosis of the cancer type through biopsy and sometimes additional testing done by the histopathologist is important. We can’t know the best way to fight a problem if we don’t know what the problem is. 

Cancer staging is also important. Treating a localized tumor has a much different approach than does cancer that has spread to lymph nodes or other organs. Chest radiographs, abdominal ultrasound, and lymph node sampling is often useful for assessing this. 

Treatment plans for pets with cancer will vary widely depending on the tumor type and stage. A treatment plan might include things like:

  • Surgery—Physically removing cancerous tissue when possible is often one of the more essential parts of treatment. Surgery alone can be curative in some cases. In other instances, removing most of a tumor (debulking) can also be beneficial when used in combination with other treatments or to temporarily improve quality of life.
  • Radiation therapy—For some types of cancer, the use of focused, high-energy particles to target and kill fast growing cells is utilized to control abnormal cells in a specific area. 
  • Chemotherapy—For some cancer patients  the use of injectable drugs to target cancerous cells throughout the body, called chemotherapy, can be very effective. While people undergoing chemotherapy often have unpleasant side effects, in pets, we often use less aggressive protocols to extend life rather than to cure entirely. Most pets tolerate chemotherapy well. 
  • Adjunctive treatment—Other treatments, such as immunotherapy, may be beneficial in battling cancer.

Other supportive care can be offered to pets with cancer, whether they are undergoing treatment or not. Good nutrition program, pain management, appetite support, acupuncture and other efforts to maintain a good quality of life are important.

Preventing Problems

While cancer in pets is not completely avoidable, you are not powerless either. There are definitely some things that you can do to lower your pet’s cancer risk overall.

  • Feed a quality diet
  • Help your pet maintain a healthy body weight
  • Know your pet’s risk factors for cancer based on breed so that you can be more vigilant in noting early signs of trouble
  • Spay or neuter your pet to lower risk of mammary cancer and other hormone-responsive cancers
  • Avoid exposure to known carcinogens such as pesticides, herbicides, asbestos, sun, and cigarette smoke
  • Be sure to maintain annual wellness appointments as recommended so that we can screen for signs of trouble

While cancer is not a diagnosis that we like to make, it doesn’t mean that we are totally without recourse when it happens. With pets living longer than ever before, it is only natural that we are battling it more often. But the more we diagnose it, the better we get at treating it.