Pets and Cancer: A Tutorial for Owners

aimss-iStock_000016342926_LargeAlmost everyone has been touched by cancer in some way, shape, or form. This horrible disease is all too common and far-reaching. Besides affecting people, cancer can also affect our pets. In fact, nearly half of all disease-related pet deaths each year are due to cancer.

With our animal friends developing this disease at nearly the same rate as the human population, understanding the relationship between pets and cancer is important for all owners. Read on to learn the information you need to be a good pet parent.

Understanding Pets and Cancer

Cancer is a disease state in which the cells in a certain part of the body begin to divide uncontrollably. They may invade the surrounding tissues or even spread to other parts of the body (called metastasizing). There are many types of cancer affecting all different types of cells. Some types of cancer are very serious, others may be more localized and relatively harmless.

Unfortunately, we don’t entirely understand what causes cancer. It is a multifactorial disease, meaning there are several different variables that might cause a single pet to develop cancer. There is certainly some component of cancer that is genetic, but environmental influences have also been shown to increase the risk of cancer.

Preventing Cancer in Pets

While not all cancers are preventable, there are certain steps that you can take to decrease the odds of your pet being affected. Maintaining a healthy environment is essential for decreasing the risk of cancer in both pets and people. Choose to:

  • Decrease or eliminate chemicals from the household – Many common household cleaning and maintenance product contain ingredients such as butyl cellosolve, petroleum, phthalates, and others that are known to be harmful. Decrease you and your pet’s exposure by choosing non-toxic alternatives.
  • Make nutrition a priority – Helping your pet to maintain a healthy body weight and feeding a good quality food can decrease the odds of cancer as well as many other health problems.
  • Decrease exposure to carcinogens – Having things like cigarette smoke in the environment is not only harmful to you, but also to your pets. As if you needed another reason to quit smoking.
  • Familiarize yourself with your pet’s risks – While understanding that your pet may be at increased risk for a certain type of cancer may not prevent it from happening, a vigilant owner is more likely to detect it earlier. Certain breeds are without a doubt at higher risk of developing specific cancers. Being on the lookout for those can increase your odds of being able to successfully treat your pet.
  • Spay or neuter – Spaying your pet before her first heat cycle almost eliminates the chances of breast cancer later in life (in dogs 50% of breast tumors are malignant and aggressive). Pets who are neutered cannot develop testicular cancer.

Maintaining frequent wellness examinations for your pet and performing recommended screening tests are also effective ways to help us catch cancer early in its course. Likewise, be sure to bring your pet in for an exam right away if you notice:

  • A new or changing lump/bump
  • A sore that does not heal
  • Decreased energy levels
  • Weight loss
  • Decreased appetite
  • Changes in breathing
  • Sudden limping
  • Changes in personality

Finding Hope

If your pet is diagnosed with cancer, do your best not to panic. Research regarding pets and cancer has come a long way, and we are able to fight this disease better than ever before. Depending on the type and severity of your pet’s cancer, our oncology department will develop a plan to help your pet. This plan may consist of:

Cancer surgery – For many types of cancer, removing all or most of the tumor cells is an important part of treatment. Some tumors are effectively treated with surgery alone.

Chemotherapy – Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to attack tumor cells. Pets tend to do much better with chemotherapy than humans do. This is due to the fact that we tend to use less aggressive drugs and protocols for pets in order to maintain a good quality of life.

Radiation therapy – The targeted use of high-energy particles to destroy cancer cells in a specific area can be helpful, especially with cancer types that are not amenable to surgical removal.

Supportive/palliative care – Certain cancer types are treated with specific vaccines or medications that are unique to that disease process. We also often use techniques such as nutrition, pain medication, or anti-nausea medication to maintain our patient’s quality of life.

While not all cancers are curable, we are often able to extend and better our veterinary cancer patients’ lives.

Cancer is never a diagnosis a pet owner wants to hear, but rest assured that if you do, we are here to help.

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