Stay positive even if your pet is diagnosed with cancer
“I’m sorry to tell you that your pet has cancer.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to utter these words and see the look of despair that it causes on an owner’s face.
I follow with, “we may be able to help,” but this is lost as the word “cancer”’ is all an owner can focus on.
The diagnosis of cancer in a family pet is devastating. As in humans, cancer is a common condition seen in our pet population. According to the Animal Cancer Foundation, 1 in 4 dogs and 1 in 5 cats will develop cancer in their lifetimes. However, a cancer diagnosis is not a death sentence or mean severe pain and suffering. In fact, in many cases, the treatment options available can be curative or extend the length and quality of life for many pets, once the diagnosis is established.
Some of the more common types of cancers we see are abdominal cancers involving the spleen, liver, kidneys or intestines. Bladder, bone, breast, and blood borne cancers like lymphoma and leukemia also are common. There are oral cancers, prostatic or testicular cancers and a variety of skin tumors as well.
Some cancers are associated with underlying viral infections such as those seen in cats with Feline Leukemia Virus or the Feline Immunodeficiency Virus. There is evidence that bladder and nasal tumors in dogs may be linked to environmental toxins such as pesticides and cigarette smoke. Certain breeds of dogs have much higher genetic risks for cancer development.
Tufts University ranks the most popular breeds in the United States according to their cancer prevalence. The golden retriever tops the list, followed by the German shepherd, poodle, boxer, rottweiler and the list goes on.
Keep in mind that these are also the most popular breeds in the United States, so it makes sense that they are most commonly affected.
Spaying a female dog before the first heat cycle (6–7 months old) greatly reduces the risk of developing mammary cancer. Recent studies put some question in the timing of castrating male dogs. You should talk with your veterinarian about what works best for your particular pet.
Large and giant breed dogs are most often affected by bone tumors and ultraviolet light exposure increases the frequency of skin cancers especially in lightly pigmented animals. Cats are most susceptible to melanomas and squamous cell tumors around the nose, eyelids and ears. Light-skinned dogs have higher incidence on the belly and insides of the legs.
Cancer can be difficult to recognize, but the earlier cancer is detected, the better the chances for a cure. Cancer typically is an age-related disease with much higher rates in pets over 10. For this reason, most veterinarians recommend biannual exams on older pets.
Some signs to look for in your pet include abnormal swellings that continue to grow, abdominal distension, rapid weight loss, loss of appetite, persistent lameness, non-healing sores or wounds, coughing or difficulty breathing, straining to urinate or defecate, or blood in the urine or stool. Any of these signs or ay other conditions that just don’t seem right should be evaluated immediately.
If you have a pet diagnosed with cancer, stay calm and ask questions. First determine what type of cancer your pet has and how advanced it has become. Realize there is no “right” or “wrong” approach and each owner will choose an option that works best for their individual needs.
Treatments may include surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy. You may choose to see a veterinary oncologist. Pets generally have fewer side effects to chemotherapy than humans. There are many great resources available, especially in Colorado where we are fortunate to have the world renowned Flint Cancer Center at Colorado State University, as well as numerous excellent veterinary oncologists on the Front Range. It is important to be armed with knowledge so that you can make informed decisions on how best to proceed.
Keep a positive attitude and remain focused on your pet and not the disease.