Cancer in pets or the big “C” is quite a burden often seen in our older pets. Often it comes up as a surprise illness in our pets. Many of my client’s pets I have diagnosed with cancer usually have had no major health issues before their diagnosis. So what is the best way to describe cancer? What are possible causes of cancer in pets? How is cancer in pets diagnosed? Can cancer in pets be prevented?
So how do you describe cancer in pets?
You probably have heard cancer in pets described in different ways. In simplest terms, cancer is an abnormal growth or regeneration of cells in the body. In the body, cells normally regenerate over a certain period of time to keep organs functioning at maximum potential. With cancer this process is disrupted often causing these cells to regenerate too quickly or in an abnormal manner leading to development of tumors.
Causes of cancer in pets?
There are multiple factors that can cause cancer.
Genetics: Genetics can play a role with cancer because some mutations can be passed on to offspring that can cause pets to develop cancer at a later age.
Carcinogens: These are any substances that has the potential to alter the regeneration of cells . Examples could include anything such as household chemicals, smoke, or radiation.
Diagnosis of cancer in pets
The first step in diagnosis of cancer, is to determine if there is suspicion of it. This is evident by the presence of an obvious mass, abnormal changes in blood work, or increase in size of lymph nodes. Masses can also be discovered by a physical exam, on x-rays, and via ultrasound. Testing options for masses includes a fine needle aspirate and a biopsy. A fine needle aspirate involves using a needle to collect cells and having them analyzed. A biopsy in most cases involves a surgical procedure that will either remove a piece or the whole mass to be submitted for analysis. Regarding blood work a complete blood count can be very important in determining if cancer is present. In those cases either the white blood count could be abnormally low or high. Further testing often requires a sampling of the bone marrow to confirm a diagnosis. Both a biopsy and a fine needle aspirate can determine if enlarged lymph nodes are due to cancer.
Can cancer in pets be prevented?
This is the million dollar question that most pet owners are interested in. The truth is there is no guarantee that your pet will never get cancer no matter what one does. But there are ways to minimize the incidence of it.
Though this is not truly complete prevention, there are some cancers that if detected early can be cured or prevented from spreading. Skin cancer is one of those that if the mass is removed early, it is less likely to recur. That can also be the case with some mammary masses. Other recommended methods for early detection includes regular lab work and x-rays to detect any masses.
While there is a debate on what the best maintenance diet to feed your pet, none of the debates discuss an important epidemic which is what snacks we feed our pets. I won’t go in any details in this article regarding these debates but I have discussed my views in previous articles (See The Raw Deal on Raw Diets, and Does a Grain Free Diet Help with Allergies). A common problem I see in my veterinary experience is that many owners are comfortable feeding their pets off their plates. A lot of these foods may include processed meats, fast food, and foods with lots of preservatives. These foods have a potential to cause changes in the body that may contribute to the cause of certain cancers. So it is important that we avoid these foods and feed our pets a well-balanced diet.
The topic of spay/neuter have recently become more controversial due to recent studies that suggested that altering pets may increase the incidence of certain cancers in certain breeds. I won’t go into too many details as I discussed my view on this subject in a previous article Perspective on the Spay Neuter Debate . But what I will say is that the results of this study have been misinterpreted especially by those who don’t have clinical experience. My overall recommendation is to decrease the incidence of cancer, any pet that is not been used for breeding should be altered. Regarding the article I mentioned if you own a breed at risk for certain cancers then you should have these pets altered after a year of age. Examples could include large breed dogs such as Rottweilers who are at risk of getting bone cancer, and golden retrievers who are at a higher risk of developing hemangiosarcoma. With that said I will reiterate that regardless of the breed or species that my recommendation is every pet is altered if not used for breeding .
Exposure to potential carcinogens
Unfortunately, pet owners don’t realize how much we expose our pets too. Pets are exposed to cigarette smoke, excessive sunlight, and household chemicals. Just like in humans, excessive exposure to these things can increase the incidence of cancer. If we want to help our pets, we definitely need to help minimize the exposure of our pets to these things.
As you can see that cancer in pets sucks because it can often come up as a surprise in them. Often when diagnosed it can already potentially cause devastating damage to the cells in the body. Treatment can be expensive, intrusive, and cause undesired side effects. Despite this, we as pet owners can play a role in decreasing the incidence of cancer in pets. Early detection is an important role in the fight against cancer so regular veterinary visits especially in our older pets are important. Feed your pets a well-balanced diet avoiding highly processed snacks off of our plates. Limit exposure of your pets to potential carcinogens. Also when the time is appropriate alter your pets.