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…).”
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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