When it comes to our family — including the four-legged, furry members — one of the biggest fears that might come to mind is the “big C,” or cancer.
However, it’s important to note that cancer treatments have come a long way in recent years. Even though we haven’t yet defeated cancer, there is a lot we can do to help dogs and cats live longer, and to increase their quality of life, in spite of a diagnosis.
In other words, a cancer diagnosis doesn’t mean there’s no hope. You may be able to keep your pal happy for longer than you expect — and to enjoy more time together.
All cancers are not the same…
While there is hope for so many patients who are diagnosed with cancer, here’s where it may get a little confusing: Cancer is a highly variable disease. In other words…
- Different types of cancer can affect different parts of the body.
- Some are fast-growing, while others progress very slowly.
- Some spread to multiple parts of the body (metastasize), while others stay in one location.
- Some cancers or tumors respond very well to treatments, while others do not.
So, if your pet is facing a cancer diagnosis, the most important thing to do is get more information. Ask your veterinarian for more details, and learn which options are available to help — when you know your choices, you’ll feel more empowered to make the best decision for your pet and your entire family.
Symptoms of cancer in pets
Since the disease can be so variable, it’s not surprising that the symptoms can also vary a lot.
For example, I’m sure you can imagine that stomach cancer looks very different from cancer in a leg bone. So, when in doubt, it’s best to check with your veterinarian if you notice any unusual symptoms — especially if your pup or kitty is in their senior years.
According to the National Canine Cancer Foundation[TP1] , there are some symptoms that are seen more frequently than others:
- Abnormal swellings that persist or continue to grow (this could be a “lump” on the skin, or something more along the lines of abdominal swelling).
- Sores that don’t heal.
- Weight loss.
- Loss of appetite.
- Bleeding or discharge from any body opening.
- A bad odor.
- Difficulty eating or swallowing.
- Hesitation to exercise or loss of stamina.
- Persistent lameness or stiffness.
- Difficulty breathing, urinating, or defecating.
Note, these are the 10 most common early symptoms listed for dogs, but they are also commonly seen in cats.
What causes cancer in pets?
Just like in the human medical world, there are a lot of theories and possibilities as to what causes cancer in pets, including:
- A family or breed history of cancer. For example, Boxers may be more prone to mast cell tumors than other dog breeds.
- Exposure to carcinogens, such as:
- UV radiation (If your pal spends a lot of time in the sun, especially if their fur is thin or light-colored, ask your vet if sunscreen is recommended).
- Smoke, including second-hand smoke (especially in cats, who may get smoke residue on their fur and then ingest it when they groom themselves).
- Other environmental factors such as pollution, certain pesticides, radon, asbestos, and more.
- Certain viruses. For example, cats that carry feline leukemia virus are at a high risk of developing lymphoma.
- Advanced age, since the risk of cancer increases as pets get older.
- There is some evidence that being overweight could increase the risk of some cancers.
- Hormonal factors. The good news is, spaying and neutering decrease the risk of several kinds of cancer, especially breast cancer in females.
Reaching a cancer diagnosis: How to know for sure
While it’s possible to prevent some risk factors — such as catching a virus or becoming overweight — unfortunately, many other risk factors can’t be prevented. So, while prevention is important, it’s not always possible.
The most important thing is to focus on what to do next if a cancer diagnosis is reached.
Before making a decision, you’ll want to have as much information as possible to help guide your next steps. Your vet will gather information through a few methods:
- A physical exam, repeated over time to monitor for changes.
- Bloodwork and x-rays (an ultrasound may be recommended, too)
- A biopsy or other specialized tests.
Once a full diagnosis is reached — knowing exactly what type of cancer is present, where it is located, and how it is most likely to behave — then you and your vet can work together to create the best plan possible.
Cancer treatment in pets
Treatments vary greatly depending on the type of cancer present, the treatments available for that type of cancer, and how all of this will affect your pet’s quality of life. For dogs and cats, the main focus of cancer treatment is to improve quality of life.
Your pet’s treatment may include…
- Care with your regular veterinarian.
- Care with an oncologist (a specialty cancer doctor).
- Minor treatments such as oral medication.
- More involved treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy.
- Adjusting the plan as needed based on your pal’s response to treatments, with the goal of maintaining a good quality of life.
- Euthanasia. This is best discussed between you and your veterinarian to decide when the time is right (for some pets, it may be months to years after a diagnosis; for others, it may be sooner).
There’s no right or wrong answer — every pet is an individual, so the plan for each dog or cat may be unique. And your treatment plan will also take into account your personal situation, including your own health situation and any financial concerns. (If you’re pregnant, your vet might not recommend chemotherapy, lest you be exposed to it.)
The point is, there’s no “right” or “wrong” decision when it comes to deciding what to do about cancer — it’s incredibly personal. So long as you keep your buddy’s quality of life in mind and enjoy the time you have together, they’ll appreciate your love, care, and friendship.