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Pet Cancer Awareness Month

by | May 28, 2020 | Cat Behavior & Care, Dog Training & Care | 13 comments

Cancer. We whisper the word, fear the consequences, and our hearts break when cancer touches loved ones, including furry family members.  But according to veterinary specialists, cancer is the most treatable—and curable!—of any chronic pet disease.

This info first posted back in May of 2013, when we celebrated Pet Cancer Awareness Month. That’s since been changed to November is Pet Cancer Awareness Month. But I’ve updated this post in May 2020 because of my personal experience with the disease in Bravo-Dawg–you can read the first post here. The amazing folks at Morris Animal Foundation address many kinds of cancer and have funded numerous studies and even trained researchers to continue the search for the cure.

According to Dr. David Haworth, president and CEO of Morris, “One in 2 dogs will develop cancer, and 1 in 4 dogs will die of the disease.  The Foundation leverages the best minds in veterinary medicine and science to work on understanding the cause (funding over 40 studies on cancer in dogs at any given time…).”

cancer

Sadly, Golden Retrievers have a high incidence of canine cancer.

WHAT PETS ARE AFFECTED BY CANCER?

Cancer strikes cats and dogs at any age, but is the #1 cause of disease and death in old pets. Dogs suffer from more kinds of cancer than any other domestic animal. One of my dear friends recently had her 13-year-old Border Collie/Lab dog diagnosed with brain cancer when Beauty developed neurological signs and trouble making her rear legs work properly. My childhood Sheltie, Lady–the dog that helped me learn about dog training–died of bladder cancer.

Cats have their own share of cancers. When I still worked as a vet tech, we treated a number of feline patients suffering from breast tumors.  The chance for breast cancer in cats can be drastically reduced or even eliminated by spaying prior to sexual maturity. Protecting cats from contracting FeLV (feline leukemia virus) also can prevent certain kinds of cancers.

COMMON CANINE CANCER AND CAT CANCER

Skin cancer is the most common canine tumor, followed by breast cancer, lymphoma, mouth tumors and bone cancers.The most common feline cancers include lymph gland cancer, skin cancer, and fibrosarcoma. While an estimated 50 percent of all pets die from this disease, the causes are rarely known.

It’s very common for older dogs to develop harmless cysts and warts (yes, I’m watching Magic since he’ll soon turn 7), but 80 percent of lumps and bumps found in cats are malignant. That’s a great reason to pet-pet-pet your cat (and dog) from head to tail on a daily basis to find anything new that needs attention. Seren loves getting this kitty massage and at age 16 and with her Siamese heritage, she’s at increased risk. The key to cure and successful treatment is early, accurate diagnosis. Have a veterinarian check any new wart, lump or slow-to-heal sore you find.

DIAGNOSIS & TREATING PET CANCER

An ultrasound, X-ray or other imaging technique can find tumors on the inside of the body. Different treatments work best on specific kinds of cancer. Surgery can disrupt protective barriers that keep the cancer from spreading, says Dr. Nichole Ehrhart, a cancer specialist at University of Illinois. “What could have been a perfectly curable cancer can be compromised,” she says. Rather than removing and sending the whole lump off for diagnosis, she recommends a needle biopsy be done first. That removes cells from the growth for screening to see what type of cancer it may be.

Your regular veterinarian can easily treat some cancers with surgery. However, a veterinary oncologist offers advanced options and provides the best chance of successful treatment. Surgery, radiation, and the same kinds of chemotherapy drugs used in people are also effective in pets. There’s a major difference—cats and dogs don’t lose their hair, and rarely feel sick during treatment.

Every single pet is different, so the treatments are designed to suit specific individuals and the type of cancer involved. For instance, radiation therapy cures up to 80 percent of some types of tumors. When diagnosed early, chemotherapy shrinks and eliminates some tumors. Because most pets are much smaller than people, cancer drug doses tend to be much smaller and can be inexpensive. Cancer drugs are typically developed and approved for use in humans. Pets also tolerate surgeries more readily than humans. For example, bone cancers are so very painful that just removing the diseased area can make your dog feel happy and playful again.

INNOVATIVE CANCER TREATMENTS

Besides the standard three treatments, some cancers respond better to therapies like cryosurgery (freezing the tumor). That’s effective for skin cancers on the face, which can be caused by sun exposure in white-faced pets. Other innovative treatments include heat therapy (hyperthermia) that “cooks” the cancer to kill it, using sound waves. Gene therapy is promising. For example, genetically engineered tumor vaccines are designed to target mouth cancers in dogs.

There are therapeutic “cancer” diets for dogs that prove helpful. A number of complementary therapies including herbs and other supplements can help cats and dogs better deal with the stress of cancer. To help with research to find more effective treatments and cures, please consider making a donation to the Morris Animal Foundation cancer initiative, perhaps in the name of a beloved pet or to honor a special animal lover in your life. Find out more about donation options here.

QUALITY OF LIFE, NOT “QUANTITY” OF LIFE

Sometimes cure isn’t possible. But a remission that gives you more time to spend with your pet is a gift beyond measure. After all, pet lovers agree that quality of life is more important than a prolonged life that’s painful. You may need to decide whether to treat his illness—and/or when to help him leave this world for the next.

It was hard learning the news about my friend’s dog Beauty. I remember when they got Beauty as a puppy for their 7-year-old (now-20) daughter….and she’s taking it the hardest of all, of course. I gave her a copy of my aging dog book to answer some questions about options and what to expect, including contact info about some of the movers and shakers in cancer research. And I shared this biggest, most important point:

Pets don’t know they have cancer. They don’t anticipate and so have no fear of what’s to come. All Beauty knows is how she feels this moment. As long as she feels good, and is with you, she’s happy. Any decision you make, with love in your heart, cannot be wrong.

Have you ever lost a beloved dog or cat to cancer? What type was it and how old were they? How did you know–my folks took Lady to the vet when she urinated blood on the fresh snow. What treatment did you choose (or decline) and why? What is your best advice and tips for pet parents facing the cancer challenge with their pets? Thanks for sharing!

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13 Comments

  1. Kimberly, The Fur Mom

    This is one of the reasons why I’m transitioning our dogs to a raw diet. I’m convinced that many cancers are due to diet and have heard so many amazing things about feeding raw. When I learned that my boss would be proposing a raise for me, I was excited, because I can better afford their diet.

    I’ve also started using many holistic products and found a local business that provides products that I think are near miracle workers for our dogs and cats. My cat was sick yesterday, I gave her some of the product and she rebounded.

    A combination of diet and natural products is really showing an improvement in our dogs and cats’ health and I hope that this gives them a long, happy, healthy life.

    Reply
    • Amy Shojai

      Wow, Kimberly, that’s terrific your pets are benefiting from these options. I really like the “integrated” approach that combines the best of all worlds to better care for our pets.

      Reply
  2. Caren Gittleman

    Wonderful post. Wish evil cancer would go away furever. Boxers are particularly prone to it too 🙁

    Reply
  3. Jana Rade

    Cancer sucks!

    Yes, I too believe that good diet, such as raw, species appropriate one, should help with cancer prevention, for a number of reasons.

    One important point – keeping weight under control is a great aspect of cancer prevention.

    Reply
    • Amy Shojai

      Jana, you’re exactly right about diet and weight. One of the Purina studies showed that dogs kept at or slightly under optimal weight increased longevity by 2 years, and decreased weight-related health issues (arthritis, diabetes, cancer, etc).

      Reply
  4. Ashley

    I lost my eleven year old (had just turned) Miniature Schnauzer, Dexter, to cancer (sarcoma) in February 2011. I was devastated then and still grieving believe it or not. It happened so fast, he was diagnosed and given three to six months and I lost him three months to the day of his diagnosis. The worst part of it was that the bump that I was so concerned about was written off as a harmless lipoma for months and was only removed at my insistence because I knew something was wrong, I just felt it. I had been right all along and he had been misdiagnosed, it was infuriating and heartbreaking.

    I had always given him the best of everything – food, care, supplements and when he got sick I amped all that up even more. I was determined to beat it and give him more time and it broke my heart that it didn’t turn out as I had hoped.

    I did learn a lot through his illness and those lessons I have put into action with his surviving brother and my newest addition. They eat a raw diet, nothing processed. They get coconut oil as well as probiotics. I am hyper sensitive now to any type of abnormality – a freckle, a bump, anything now scares me. I have worked with animals for years as a vet tech and trainer and things that I used to not really sweat cause me worry now.

    I can only hope that someday there will be a cure for the evil monster cancer. If there is any advice I can offer it’s that if you find something on your pet that worries you, have it checked out immediately and if you still don’t feel right after talking to your vet, get a second opinion. Don’t be afraid to push and ask questions and insist on diagnostics and just take things at face value. Go with your instinct, I have found it’s usually always right.

    God bless all of you, those who have fought the battle. For those of you who haven’t I truly pray you never have to.

    Reply
    • Amy Shojai

      Ashley, I certainly can understand that you still grieve for Dexter. To pet lovers, that is perfectly understandable. To lose him so quickly is never easy and I’m saddened that his vet wasn’t able to catch this earlier. That little voice inside of us certainly should alert pet parents to pushing for further tests/help. Yes, it’s heartbreaking to think about the “what ifs” . . . maybe it would have made a significant difference but with cancer, that’s hard to say, too.

      Eleven years is such a gift, too. And perhaps Dexter’s last gift was to you and all future pets with the lessons his illness taught. I hope you’ll never have to face this again, Ashley. Even one time is too much.

      Reply
  5. Patricia Hubbard

    Amy -Thank You for writing about one of the most difficult illnesses pets and their owners face. I will admit it brought me to tears and to read of others experiences with this monster CANCER is truly heartbreaking. Thank God I’ve never had to face this with my furry children but realize it could happen. I’m so glad pets don’t know they have cancer. I was blessed with 2 cats that lived a few months short of 20 years old and neither died of cancer. I have thought many times what I would do if one of my cats ended up with cancer and I would get them the best treatment and care possiible and hope I wouldn’t have to make that ultimate decision no one wants to face. Thanks to all of you for sharing your experience with this monster. God bless you and your pets.

    Reply
    • Amy Shojai

      Patricia, thank you for your comments. I think it helps enormously for us to share our experiences, and buoy each other up through the storms …and celebrate the rainbows.

      Reply
  6. Andrea Dorn

    I find it ironic that I can almost always diagnose (unofficially, of course) someone else’s pet’s condition pretty accurately just by listening to the symptoms. In other words I can guess “pretty good.” But when it comes to my own pets I’m not so good. I am very good at knowing when something is wrong even when there are no obvious signs but when it comes to my own pets I think I am blinded to the realities I don’t want to face (if that makes sense). Luckily I have been blessed with some very good veterinarians.

    Gabbie was the first. I was sure (or was I just hoping) that she only had a urinary infection. But when she kept passing blood in ever greater amounts I couldn’t believe she had cancer. But she did. Her tumor was inoperable anyway but I feel bad that I didn’t consider that possibility.

    Since then I’ve had so many cats with many different types of cancers that you would think I’d learned my lesson. But no, when Twygal’s face started swelling I guessed it had to be an infection. It wasn’t. Again there was nothing anyone could do about it anyway but I should have known.

    I guess it’s just a matter of refusing to face the realities of mortality. I don’t want to believe that my cats could die. But like others have written, I am overly-vigilant about finding those tiny little bumps, freckles or sores. And I’m extremely thankful that I have a veterinarian who understands when I tell her that “she’s just not right.”

    Great subject, Amy. Good discussion.

    Reply
    • Amy Shojai

      Andrea, I think those of us who work closely with animals do get a sense of ‘possibilities’ that can prove helpful. Even in our writing, I find that it’s much easier for me to see problems/suggest solutions in others work but I’m blind to my own bad writing.

      Do you find, though, that you become hyper-sensitized to even harmless issues? When I first began writing, every “disease” that I wrote about I started to see “suspicious” signs in my pets…

      Reply
      • Andrea Dorn

        Oh, yes, I certainly do! I see spots in their eyes or limps that aren’t there, etc. Hypochondriac pet owner or Munchausen sort of thing, huh? 🙂

        Reply

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