The C word: Pet Cancer Awareness month

No one wants to see their pet fall ill, it’s simply heartbreaking. As pet owners, we do everything we can to ensure they have amazing lives by providing the best foods and toys to vaccinations and check-ups with their vets.

One disease that we have little control over is one that affects humans as well. Cancer. The diagnosis that every pet parent dreads to hear and it’s one that is becoming more and more common. Half of all dogs over the age of 10 develop cancer, and simply 1 dog in 4 will develop cancer in their lifetime. Those are sobering numbers.

What’s a pet parent to do?
For prevention, one of the best things to do is to spay or neuter your pet. This lowers their chances of getting mammary cancer for females by eight-fold and it eliminates the chances of uterine and ovarian cancer in females and testicular cancer in males.

Taking care of their teeth can help decrease oral cancers. If you’d like more information on brushing their teeth you can check out “Gnasher’s gnashers” here.

But the main thing we know about preventing cancer is…nothing. We don’t actually know what causes most cancers so identifying it and starting treatment early is the best strategy.

Cancer symptoms in our pets are actually similar to those in humans. Classic signs are:

  • A lump or bump
  • A would that doesn’t heal
  • Lameness or swelling in the bone
  • Abnormal bleeding
  • Sudden weight loss

Early on, there is often little or no signs at all. If you think that something isn’t right, it’s always a good idea to flag it with your vet.

I found a lump on Gaelen’s leg (our family dog) that was slow growing. It didn’t pain him and it was squishy so we waited a week to see if it went down on its own. It didn’t, so we took him to see our vet and she recommended having the tumor removed and tested to see if it was cancerous.

Is there a difference between cancer and a tumor?
Yes, there is quite the difference. Not all tumors are cancer and not all cancers have tumors. What makes any given tumor cancer is whether it is benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous).  A simple way to look at it is:

A benign tumor can be dangerous but isn’t cancerous. The danger depends on the tumor size and where it is located.

A malignant tumor is cancer and it will often spread throughout the body making it difficult to treat.

We were lucky that our vet was able to remove most of the growth, but she couldn’t remove all of it. We waited a few days for the test results, and luckily they came back as benign. It’s been many years now since Gaelen had his surgery and the tumor has come back. He’s at the ripe old age of 14 and we wouldn’t put him through another surgery for something cosmetic.

If it had come back as cancerous, we would have had to make the tough decision on what treatment to follow.

Treatment options
Treatments for dogs (and other pets) have advanced at a similar rate as those for humans. From surgery to chemo or even immunotherapy, there are often several options.

Used in most cases to remove as much of the tumor as possible. Sometimes it’s not possible to remove the entire tumor with surgery or testing the tumor shows that other treatments may become necessary. This may be the only therapy recommended or it could be performed before or after chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

A blanket term used for using drugs to combat disease. There are many different ways to administer a course of chemotherapy and the details will be discussed with you by your veterinary oncologist.

With chemotherapy, there are some side effects, many similar to those experienced by people. Most common symptoms include temporary diarrhea or vomiting and a lowered appetite. Hair thinning can be seen in dogs that have hair coats like poodles and schnauzers. More severe side effects are estimated to occur in less than 5% of all pets who receive chemotherapy according to the Clinical Oncology Service at the Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

Radiation therapy
Radiation therapy is a localized treatment, like surgery, and is often used for tumors that can’t be surgically removed due to their location such as near the heart or brain. The treatment is a daily one and takes about an hour and a half to two hours. Most of that is the wait time for the anesthesia to work and then to wear off, the actual treatment only takes 5-10 minutes.

Symptoms from radiation treatment are generally mild and include discomfort, skin problems and fatigue.

Cancer is a diagnosis that no one wants to hear. We hope that this article has left you with greater knowledge of what to watch for and, if you’ve had a diagnosis of cancer for your pet, helped ease your mind.

Information given in this article is not a substitute for advice from a qualified medical professional. Please consult a veterinarian for advice specific to your dog.