Cancer is a word that pet owners hope never to hear, but unfortunately this diagnosis is common. One in four dogs will have cancer during their lifetime, which mirrors human cancer rates. At 10 years of age and older, canine cancer rate increases to 50%. While cats also develop cancer, veterinary researchers have not studied feline cancer risk rates as fully. 

Cancer can affect nearly any organ or body system, and causes variable effects. Fortunately, veterinary oncology advances have made treatments more effective, providing afflicted pets with a better chance at a longer, healthier life. Remember, successful treatment requires early detection. To teach you to recognize your pet’s potential cancer signs and to help you understand their treatment options, our Town & Country Animal Hospital presents these guidelines.

What is pet cancer?

Neoplasms (i.e., tumors) can form in any body tissue, but not all neoplasms are considered cancer. Some tumors are benign, because they can grow and displace local tissues, but they don’t invade tissue or spread to other body areas (i.e., metastasize). A malignant neoplasm (i.e., cancer) can be locally invasive or destructive, and may metastasize throughout the body. Each cancer type’s behavior and prognosis varies greatly, with some growing and spreading slowly over years, and others spreading before your veterinarian can make a diagnosis.

How is pet cancer diagnosed?

Cancer causes variable signs throughout the body. Neoplasms may be internal or external. Certain tumor types can secrete substances that affect hormonal balance and organ functions, while others simply exist. Therefore, for your veterinarian to determine whether a particular change in your pet’s health or behavior is caused by cancer or another disease, your four-legged friend must undergo multiple diagnostic tests. Common cancer signs are nonspecific, but may include:

  • Visible tumor or swelling
  • Weight loss
  • Bleeding or bruising
  • Increased thirst or urination
  • Cough or breathing change
  • Vomiting or diarrhea

If your pet has a visible tumor, your veterinarian will make a diagnosis through cytology or histopathology, which analyzes cells from a needle biopsy or a larger tissue piece. Blood and urine tests may detect some cancers, but these diagnostic results are often normal. Chest and abdominal X-rays, and abdominal ultrasound can detect primary tumors and determine if cancer has spread to other organs. This imaging, combined with histopathology (i.e., staging) can help your veterinarian determine your pet’s cancer type, stage, and predicted behavior. Sometimes advanced imaging, such as a computed tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), also helps  your veterinarian visualize your pet’s internal tumor, and plan treatment.

How is pet cancer treated?

Depending on a cancer’s type and location, treatments vary widely. Surgery can remove a primary tumor, but may not cure the cancer. Chemotherapy, radiation, and immunotherapy are other adjunctive treatment options. Each pet’s success rate is unique. Some cancer patients are completely cured or go into remission after treatment, while others experience cancer control for several years, months, or weeks. A second round of treatment may be effective for pets experiencing a cancer relapse. If treatment cannot cure your pet, palliative treatment options can relieve their pain or suffering while they live out the remainder of their days.

Keep in mind that pets tolerate cancer treatments better than humans. Most pets do not lose their fur, and they continue to eat, drink, and behave normally. Medications can help pets who develop stomach upset. In addition, your veterinarian can modify a treatment to ensure these modalities do not make a pet feel worse than the disease for which they are being treated would. Veterinary cancer treatment’s goal is to eliminate your pet’s pain and extend life whenever possible. Remember, veterinarians prioritize their patients’ quality of life and closely monitor these pets to ensure their life is worth living.

Can pet cancer be prevented?

Because many cancers develop for unknown reasons, prevention may not be possible in all cases. Spaying and neutering can decrease reproductive cancers. The best cancer prevention is to focus on your pet’s overall health and wellness—feed a high-quality diet, encourage daily exercise, maintain their healthy weight, and follow your veterinarian’s preventive care recommendations. Become cognizant of your pet’s normal behavior, and if your four-legged friend exhibits any changes, promptly schedule an appointment with your veterinarian. By annually performing your pet’s wellness exams, blood screenings, and urine tests, your veterinarian can track your four-legged friend’s health trends, and if they suspect cancer, will immediately order additional screening tests.

If we suspect your pet has cancer, our Town & Country Animal Hospital team has the diagnostic equipment and knowledge to confirm the diagnosis, stage your four-legged friend’s cancer, and recommend treatments. Call us to schedule an appointment if your pet is overdue for a wellness examination, if you’ve noticed any lumps or bumps, or if you have other concerns about your pet’s health.