What’s the hardest part of being a pet’s human? Most people will answer the fear of their pets being unwell or losing the pet. This is something that also weighs on my mind — the thought of my pets even slightly distressed is intolerable.
Protecting our pets’ health is what de-sexing, de-worming and vaccinations are all about. But can we go further than that? Is there a way to protect our precious fur friends against cancer?
The answer is “Yes, maybe, but no guarantees.”
Causes of Cancer in Pets
To prevent a problem, it’s helpful to recognize the risk factors.
Family History and Inheritance
Some dog breeds carry a higher risk of cancer than others. This suggests a genetic link to cancer that is passed from susceptible parents to their pups. Unfortunately, this is difficult to prevent because the parents produced litters before they themselves become sick.
Examples of breeds at risk include:
- German Shepherds: They are prone to hemangiosarcoma. This is a tumor that affects highly vascular organs such as the spleen or heart.
- Boxers: Have you heard of the Boxer bump? This is the potentially serious skin cancer called mast cells tumor.
- Bernese Mountain Dogs: It is a sad fact that these beautiful, gentle giants have a high incidence of cancer.
Having one of these breeds does not automatically mean they’ll get cancer, but the odds are slightly higher. If you are “risk averse,” then research the breed first to see what health problems might await.
Increased age goes hand-in-paw with an increased risk of cancer. It’s thought that an aging immune system is less efficient at policing cell mutations — meaning instead of killing cancer cells, these mutations get a chance to become established.
The upside of this is that our pets are indeed living longer. Whereas we used to expect our pets to die of renal or heart disease, modern drugs mean pets live longer — allowing age-related problems such as cancer to show up.
The classic example is the feline leukemia virus (FeLV) in cats, which causes a variety of different cancerous conditions. Happily, an effective vaccine is an option for at-risk cats.
Carcinogens and the Environment
Our pets are just as vulnerable to the harmful effects of carcinogens as people are. For example, pesticides, insecticides, air pollution and asbestos can all make our pets ill. Avoidance is best policy, which includes tobacco smoke that puts your pet at risk of lung cancer.
Reducing the Risk of Cancer
Enough of feeling helpless. Here are some concrete steps can you take to keep your pet well.
Female dogs spayed before their first season have a huge protection against mammary cancer in later life. For the boys, neutering eliminates the risk of testicular cancer. However, current evidence is undecided with regard to protecting against prostate cancer.
A Healthy Diet
First, let’s be clear: There is no diet that will prevent cancer. However, good nutrition helps feed the body’s immune system and strengthens its defenses. Antioxidants are particularly important; they eliminate damaging free radicals that cause cell mutations. Providing a vitamin E-rich diet to encourage the breakdown of free radicals is a sensible precaution.
In addition, being picky about the artificial preservatives, colors and flavorings that go into your pet’s mouth is a good way of reducing contact with edible carcinogens.
Reducing Identifiable Risks
A white-coated dog with a pink nose is at risk of sunburn leading to skin cancer. This is a risk because the dog lacks the protective pigment melanin. If you own a thin-coated or fair-skinned pet, then keep them safe in the sun: Use pet-friendly sunscreen, UV protective T-shirts and provide plenty of shade.
Also, avoid leaving your pet out in the yard on a hot, sunny day.
Vigilance and Vet Visits
When detected early, most cancers stand a much better chance of treatment and cure. For example, the majority of small mast tumors can be successfully removed with wide margins when spotted early. That same mast tumor, when allowed to grow, may have already seeded cancer cells by the time it goes to surgery.
Check your pet’s body over weekly. Be alert for new lumps and bumps. At the very least, take a photo on your phone and write down the exact size of the lump. Any lump should be checked by a vet.
But if you decide to wait, then it’s essential to monitor things. Check the lump again at weekly intervals, being alert for increased size, redness, change of character or spread.
Here’s a veterinary oncologist’s take on cancer in pets:
Signs Your Pet Should See the Vet
If your vet is diagnosed with cancer, especially when it’s caught early, there’s a lot that can be done. The worst decision is to hope the problem goes away on its own and let precious time tick by.
At home, be alert for general signs, such as:
- A growing, changing or angry-looking lump
- A swollen belly
- Difficulty breathing
- A lack of energy or appetite
- Increased thirst
- Lameness or stiffness
- A change in behavior, especially a lack of interest in walks or play
These are all pointers that your pet needs to see a vet. Prompt diagnosis can make all the difference.
I wish I could suggest a cast-iron way to protect your pet against cancer. Sadly, this isn’t possible. From a good diet to a weekly checkover, simple things do make a difference, so don’t be discouraged — instead, be proactive against cancer.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Sept. 8, 2017.