By Baillie James, Case Manager/Certified Claims Adjuster for Companion Protect™
Roughly six million dogs and six million cats receive a new pet cancer diagnosis each year in the United States (National, 2019). Pets over 10 years are especially at risk; nearly 50% of dogs over 10 years will get cancer (AVMA, 2019). These estimates might inspire dread and cold sweats, but pet cancer is often treatable and sometimes preventable.
Why do so many pets get cancer?
Pet health care has improved significantly over the past several decades – vaccines prevent common diseases, and preventive medicines and supplements keep the worst ailments at bay. Because pets are protected from common diseases and have a heightened standard of care, they live longer, healthier lives. Unfortunately, dogs and cats age significantly faster than humans. On average, a dog develops spontaneous pet cancer at 8.4 years – about 50 human years (Paoloni M., Khanna C.,2008).
Pets are exposed to the same environmental factors as their human owners. Smog, drinking water, packaged food, cigarette smoke, and other conditions take their toll. Because pets share so many biological and environmental similarities with humans, they sometimes develop the same diseases. In fact, humans and dogs share so many biological similarities that the Comparative Oncology Department – a branch of the National Cancer Institute – exclusively studies dogs with naturally occurring pet cancers to better understand cancer and treatment for humans (National, 2019).
So, how can you decrease your pet’s risk of developing cancer, or at least catch it early?
Visit the vet once a year at minimum, and more frequently for older pets. Veterinarians are certified professionals, and their keen diagnostic skills might notice weight loss, masses, or other concerning pet cancer symptoms that the average owner might not discern.
Other Ways to Minimize Your Pet’s Cancer Risk:
- Monitor for new or changing lumps and bumps
- Spay/neuter your pet (eliminates risk of ovarian/testicular cancer; significantly lowers risk of mammary cancer) (AVMA, 2019)
- Limit exposure to tobacco smoke and household/lawn chemicals
- Maintain a healthy weight (While obesity is not a proven cause of cancer in companion animals, there is a direct link in humans)
- Adopt a mixed breed (instead of pure bred). Studies show that purebred pets are at a higher risk of developing cancer. (Animal, Nutrition)
- Feed a complete and balanced diet. Most commercial pet foods contain all needed nutrients, but conduct research and consult with your veterinarian about what diet is right for your pet.
Many pet insurance policies cover cancer treatment if not a pre-existing condition. While pet insurance will not stop your pet from getting cancer, it can protect your wallet and enable you to provide the best care to your furry friend.
I think my pet has cancer…what next?
As with any disease, the sooner pet cancer is diagnosed, the sooner it can be treated. Early detection is a key factor in cancer survival rate – so call the vet and schedule an appointment.
Take notes before the appointment, and write down any symptoms, frequency of occurrence, size or location of new masses, or other details.
Possible cancer warning signs (AVMA, 2019):
- Abdominal swelling
- Drastic changes in appetite or weight
- Difficulty breathing or swallowing
- Non-healing wounds
- Lumps, bumps, or discolored skin
- Discharge or bleeding
- New or changing mass/tumor
Some neoplasia or masses are benign, meaning harmless. If your pet has a lump, the doctor will examine it and suggest diagnostic testing if appropriate, often beginning with a fine needle aspirate (FNA) and cytology of the cells. Depending on those results, the doctor will determine if the neoplasm is malignant and needs to be removed – or benign (AVMA, 2019).
Other pet cancers are internal and cannot be easily visualized; the most common cancers in canines are lymphoma, osteosarcoma, mast cell tumors, and melanoma. Some of the most common in felines are vaccine-related fibrosarcomas, lymphoma, mammary gland tumors, and mast-cell tumors (Animal, Cancer).
Fortunately, many cancers are treatable. Treatment depends on the type and location of cancer, stage of advancement, and other individual factors. After a cancer diagnosis, many veterinarians will refer to a veterinary oncologist. These cancer specialists obtain certification from the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (ACVIM) to exclusively treat canines and felines.
If your pet has recently been diagnosed with cancer, the Veterinary Cancer Society website has answers to common pet owner FAQs (Veterinary, 2019). The Animal Cancer Foundation established November as National Pet Cancer Month starting in 2005, so awareness and research will only continue to surge.
Oncology research is a rapidly expanding area of veterinary study, and new treatments are constantly being tested and developed. Doctors are especially motivated because studying cancer in canines and felines often aids cancer research for humans.
A cancer diagnosis is just that — a diagnosis. Check your calendar – if it’s been more than a year since your pet’s last vet visit, it’s time to book an appointment. Detecting early will help you and your veterinarian come up with the best plan for your pet!
Baillie James is a Case Manager/Certified Claims Adjuster for Companion Protect™. James has worked both in the education and pet welfare fields since graduating from Truman State University with a Bachelor’s in Communication. She shares her home with one dog and four cats.
Disclaimer: All content found on the CompanionProtect.com website including: text, images, audio, or other media were created for informational purposes only. This content is not intended to substitute professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian or other qualified healthcare provider with questions regarding any medical conditions or treatments. Always consult your veterinarian before beginning a new healthcare regimen or making any changes to your pet’s medical care. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking treatment because of information provided on this website. Links to educational content not created by Companion Protect are taken at your own risk; Companion Protect is not responsible for the claims of external websites and educational companies.
- National Cancer Institute, Center for Cancer Research. (n.d.) What is Comparative Oncology? Retrieved from https://ccr.cancer.gov/Comparative-Oncology-Program/pet-owners/what-is-comp-onc
- Sekanova, M. and Rathor, K. (2014, Oct. 14.) Animal models and therapeutic molecular targets of cancer: utility and limitations. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4206199/
- Paoloni M., Khanna C. (2008, Feb. 8.) Translation of new cancer treatments from pet dogs to humans. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18202698
- American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). (n.d.) Cancer in Pets. https://www.avma.org/public/PetCare/Pages/Cancer-in-Pets.aspx
- Animal Cancer Foundation. (n.d.) Cancer Education. Retrieved from http://acfoundation.org/cancer-education/
- Veterinary Cancer Society. (n.d.) Pet Owner FAQs. Retrieved from http://vetcancersociety.org/pet-owners/faqs/
- Animal Cancer Foundation. (n.d.) Nutrition and Cancer: Do’s and Don’ts. Retrieved from http://acfoundation.org/nutrition-and-cancer-what-we-can-and-cant-do/
- Animal Cancer Foundation. (n.d.) Financial Assistance. Retrieved from http://acfoundation.org/financial-assistance/