The mere mention of the word cancer evokes unpleasant thoughts and emotions. It is a sad realization that our pets, as with humans, can develop certain cancers. Dogs, cats, ferrets, birds, and reptiles…all species develop cancer. Pet owners should be aware of what to look for, and what to expect if signs of cancer appear.
Why do our pets develop cancer? This is often a hard question to answer. We do know that many factors can contribute to the change and mutation of cells leading to cancer, including:
Cancers can be benign or malignant. Benign cancer stays in one area of the body and is not apt to spread. Malignant cancer appears in one area of the body and can travel to other areas of the body, including lymph nodes or other organs. Certain cancers can be painful, life-altering or even life threatening while others are much less aggressive and easily managed.
It’s not always easy to tell if our pet has cancer, but the most notable signs of cancer are:
- Development of lumps or bumps, associated with the skin, bones, or organs
- Asymmetrical swelling of parts of the body
More vague signs can include:
- Wounds that fail to heal properly
- Limping or lameness that develops without any obvious trauma or injury
- Unexplained chronic vomiting, diarrhea or weight loss
- Lethargy, exercise intolerance, and labored
Schedule a check up with your veterinarian as soon as possible if you observe any of these signs in your pets or you think your pet may have cancer.
First, a full examination will likely be performed. If cancer is suspected, specific tests can help diagnose the type of cancer and extent of the disease.
With easily accessible superficial lumps or bumps or local lymph nodes, a fine needle can be a minimally invasive way used to draw fluid from the lump to diagnose.
A more invasive, yet more conclusive, biopsy is often done. These biopsies include:
- An incisional biopsy – removal of a piece of the lump
- An excisional biopsy – removal of the entire lump (which also serves as a treatment)
Typically, general blood work is also recommended. Veterinary pathologists evaluate samples for complete blood count, red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. This is important because some cancers affect the bone marrow causing potentially significant drops in blood cell counts. Biochemical blood profiles also are helpful in screening the bodies.
Other diagnostic tools include the following imaging techniques:
- Thoracic and abdominal radiographs (x-rays)
- Abdominal ultrasound
- Computed tomography (CT) scans
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
These techniques help determine the organs or body cavities impacted and the potential for metastasis (spread to distant sites). In cases where a specific limb is involved, radiographs help determine the involvement of soft tissues and bone.
The information gathered from the physical exam and tests recommended by your Vet help form a diagnosis, and will hopefully identify the type of cancer. At this point, it is important to discuss the short term and long term prognosis with the identified disease. A plan is then made to best treat the cancer and the effects on the body.
Pain management and your pet’s comfort are paramount. Treatments are chosen to treat, lessen the effects of, or in some cases even completely cure and rid the pet of the disease. These treatments vary depending on the type of cancer and the effect it is having on the body, and can involve:
- Surgery to remove the cancer
- Radiation therapy
A Veterinary Oncologist (cancer specialists) will usually perform these treatments.
Cancer is one of the most significant issues that can affect our furry little friends. By working with your Veterinarian, a plan can be instituted to best treat and deal with this issue, and to keep your pet comfortable while retaining the best quality of life possible. – Peter Olson, DVM
Peter Olson, DVM, is a 2007 graduate of The Ohio State University School of Veterinary Medicine. He and his wife Beth share their home with two dogs, two cats, four turtles and a Russian Tortoise.