Guide to Canine Cancer: Your Most Common Questions Answered
From signs and symptoms to what to do if your dog's been diagnosed, get the important dog cancer information you need.
Posted: May 29, 2014, 2 p.m. PST
While too many dogs still get diagnosed with cancer each year, new research and treatments are helping increase the quality and quantity of life for dogs with the disease. Education also works as a powerful tool in preventing and dealing with canine cancer. In observance of Pet Cancer Awareness Month in May, the staff at The Veterinary Cancer Center in Norwalk, Conn., offers information on the disease that can benefit both you and the dogs in your life.
Do Dogs Get Cancer?
Answer By Gina Olmsted, D.V.M.
Not only do dogs get cancer, but cancer is sadly one of the most common diseases affecting aging pets. Estimates indicate that at least 4 million dogs develop cancer each year. In addition, 45 percent of dogs that live to 10 years or older die of cancer, according to one survey of data for more than 2,000 dogs. A 2005 Morris Animal Foundation survey revealed that cancer was the largest health concern among dog owners at 41 percent, with heart disease the No. 2 concern at only 7 percent.
What Types of Cancer Affect Dogs?
Answer By Gina Olmsted, D.V.M.
Our pets get many of the same cancers that humans do, and a lot of these cancers behave very similarly in pets as they do in people. Some of the most common cancers seen in dogs are skin tumors, lymphoma, and mammary cancer (breast cancer). The cause of cancer in our pets is much the same as in people, with genetics playing a large role and environmental factors serving as a contributing element in some cases.
Can Dogs Be Treated for Cancer?
Answer By John Farrelly, D.V.M., M.S., DACVIM (Oncology), DACVR (Radiation Oncology)
Pet Cancer Awareness Month is a time when we like to draw attention to things we can do to identify cancer in our pets. With cancer, an early diagnosis is important to give dogs the best chance of success. However, another key step lies in knowing how and where to get treatment for your pet with cancer. I find it amazing that patients’ owners and many other people that I meet still say, "I didn’t know that you could treat a pet for cancer” or "I didn’t know that oncologists existed for dogs and cats.”
This is shocking because animal cancer treatment is a field that has been growing since the 1960s and continues to expand, providing many different options for care when your pet has cancer.
Did you know that there are more than 300 oncologists, board certified by the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, and over 40 radiation oncologists, board certified by the American College of Veterinary Radiology? Also, in a recent survey over 65 radiation facilities were identified in the United States. Many of these facilities provide the same type of radiation for pets that you would have if you went to your doctor to get treated for cancer.
What Is the Prognosis for Dogs With Cancer?
By Gina Olmsted, D.V.M.
The good news is that just like in people, early detection of cancer can greatly improve a dog’s length and quality of life, as it allows for initiation of therapy early in the course of the disease. Routine exams and checkups with your veterinarian play a major role in the early detection and prevention of cancer in pets. These exams should be twice a year in any mature adult or senior pet. The other piece of good news is that more cancer treatments are available for dogs than ever before. These treatments can involve surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, clinical trials, palliative medications, or a combination of these therapies. The aim of any pet cancer therapy is to improve the length of a dog’s life, and most important to also provide them with excellent quality of life.
Does My Dog Have Cancer? Signs Your Dog Needs a Vet Evaluation
By Dorothy Jackson, D.V.M.
Clients often ask veterinarians whether or not their pet needs to be evaluated based on certain changes noted at home. The answer can be difficult to determine over the phone, as vets gather a lot of information from a physical examination. Still, some clinical signs are more likely to warrant an evaluation by a veterinarian.
Severe lethargy, for example, where a dog is not willing or able to rise on her own, even to urinate or defecate, could signify weakness due to anemia or a neurologic problem. If your dog exhibits this symptom, she needs an evaluation and/or further diagnostics to determine the underlying cause of the lethargy.
Lack of appetite can also be a red flag. Dogs can miss a meal or two without experiencing detrimental effects. However, a decreased appetite that persists for two or three days despite a variety of food being offered warrants evaluation by a veterinarian. Other gastrointestinal signs, such as vomiting and diarrhea, especially when they occur without any recent change in diet or any dietary indiscretion, also justify evaluation.
Any changes in urination habits — for example, straining to urinate, urinating more frequently, or having blood in the urine — could be due to an infection or other abnormality within the urinary tract. Your vet should analyze your dog’s urine to rule out an infection and/or perform imaging procedures to see if the bladder has any abnormalities.
These recommendations are generalities and may not pertain to every case. If you notice any changes in your dog at home, voice them to your family veterinarian, who can give you further instruction, whether that be close monitoring at home or scheduling an appointment for assessment and further diagnostics.
My Dog Has Cancer — Now What? 5 Questions to Ask Your Vet After a Cancer Diagnosis
By Jennifer McDaniel, D.V.M.
Canine cancer is a scary diagnosis. The emotional stress associated with it can be made worse by getting misinformation or no information at all. What questions should you ask your veterinarian to ensure that your pet’s cancer treatment is on the correct path?
1. What type of cancer does my dog have?
Many types of cancer exist, from sarcomas to carcinomas to round cell tumors. Knowing your dog’s exact type of cancer can allow you to ask the right questions and do the right research.
2. What other diagnostic tests or staging tests should be performed?
Oftentimes, the diagnosis of cancer is just the beginning. Your dog may need further tests, such as ultrasounds, radiographs, or blood tests, to help better classify the disease and/or determine if it has spread to other locations.
3. What treatment options are available for this type of cancer?
Treatment for cancer often involves multiple therapies. Options may include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and/or immunotherapy. Knowing all of the potential treatment options can help you make the most informed decision for your dog.
4. Should I seek the help of a veterinary specialist?
General practitioners are the central members of a pet’s medical team. Cancer, however, is a very complex disease with various and often rapidly changing treatment options. You might need to seek the help of a board-certified veterinary specialist, such as an oncologist or radiologist, to decide upon the best treatment plan for your pet.
5. Is my pet currently in pain? If so, what can we do about it?
Animals are very good at hiding their signs. Although your dog might not be acting like she’s in pain by crying, whining, etc., she might still be hurting. Your veterinarian can assess heart rate, respiratory rate, and other physiologic responses that may indicate pain. If your dog is showing signs of pain, there are many options for pain-relieving medications.
Can Dogs Receive Chemotherapy? What Are the Side Effects?
By Ian Muldowney, D.V.M.
When people hear the word "chemo,” they often think of hair loss, nausea, hours spent hooked up to IV drips, and other experiences of family and friends who have undergone treatment for cancer. For this reason, many dog owners are frightened by the idea of their furry best friends receiving chemotherapy. Although many of the same chemotherapy drugs people receive are also used in animal patients, however, it is uncommon for pets to experience these negative side effects. In fact, estimates suggest that about 85 percent of pets handle chemotherapy with little or no side effects.
When adverse effects do occur, they tend to be mild and self-limiting. On occasion, animals can experience gastrointestinal issues or side effects related to low white blood cell counts that require treatment at home with oral medications or, in rare, severe cases, hospitalization. Luckily, animals usually recover quite well from serious events, and care is taken to ensure that these side effects do not recur. As veterinary oncologists, our goal is to improve not only your dog’s quantity of life but also the quality, so that you continue to enjoy every moment you have together.
What Innovations Are Being Made in Cancer Care for Dogs?
By Michael J. Linderman, D.V.M., DACVIM (Oncology)
Radiation therapy has been saving the lives of people and animals since the late 19th century. Since then, impressive advances in the field of radiation oncology have enabled both veterinarians and physicians to deliver incredibly precise doses of radiation with pinpoint accuracy.
Linear accelerators, the most common machines used for delivering radiation therapy, take up a large amount of space. This space requirement has limited the availability of radiation therapy. New technology developed over the past five years allowed the construction of much smaller radiation therapy units, allowing radiation therapy to be much more accessible.
These types of innovations enable us to fight cancer more effectively and at more locations. Our patients are experiencing higher quality of life for longer periods of time.