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Dogs and Cancer: Get the Facts

A vet answers 10 commonly asked questions about cancer in dogs.
By Sandy Eckstein
WebMD Pet Health Feature
Reviewed by Elizabeth A. Martinez, DVM

Cancer is the leading cause of death in dogs over the age of 10. Half of all cancers are curable if caught early, experts say. WebMD talked to Dave Ruslander, a veterinary oncologist and past president of the Veterinary Cancer Society, about canine cancers and the latest treatments for dogs diagnosed with the disease.

Q: What are some of the symptoms of cancer in dogs?

A: The warning signs of cancer in dogs are very similar to that in people. Any time an animal isn’t feeling well, or there’s something abnormal or not quite right, the owner needs to bring it to the attention of their veterinarian.

Q: What’s causing these high cancer rates in our dogs?

A: I think people are taking better and better care of their animals and pets are living longer and longer, so we’re seeing more animals live to an age where they develop cancer.

Years past, many dogs died from common illnesses or were hit by a car. Now we have vaccines and we keep our dogs indoors, so they’re just around longer.

# 1– Unusual Odors

While “dog breath” is common, if you notice unusually foul odors coming from the mouth, nose or rectal area, it may be due to a tumor.

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# 2– Bumps or Lumps On or Under the Skin

Get into the habit of checking your pet’s skin monthly. Don’t forget to check behind ears and around the face. Even if you find a very tiny lump or bump, cancer can grow very quickly. Any new lumps or bumps should not be ignored. If the bumps are bleeding or there is discharge, see a veterinarian immediately.

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# 3– Unusual Weight Loss

Unless you’ve put your pet on a diet, their weight should remain pretty consistent. Sudden weight loss is a cause for concern.

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# 4– Appetite Changes

Illness is likely the cause if your dog has lost interest in meal times. Many health conditions cause appetite loss, and cancer is one of them.

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# 5– Lethargy

Learn to tell the difference between a lazy dog and a lethargic one. You know your dog’s personality the best. Talk to your veterinarian if he doesn’t seem like himself and is spending more and more time sleeping.

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# 6– Respiratory Problems

Dogs can get lung cancer, and some indicators could be coughing, wheezing, or shortness of breath after very little exercise.

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# 7– Behavior Changes

Has your normally mellow dog been snapping? Is she spending more time away from you? She could be in pain. Pay attention to how she is walking, eating and playing. If you notice any limping or struggling– it’s time to see the vet.

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# 8– Open Sores

It could be because of a larger medical issue if your dog has an open sore or other wounds that aren’t healing properly. Time to seek a professional opinion.

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# 9– Vomiting and Diarrhea

If you notice that your dog is vomiting frequently, and/or has diarrhea, you should see your veterinarian, especially if it’s accompanied by any of these other symptoms. Also check your dog’s abdomen for bloating and distension (stomach swelling).

Few diagnoses in the veterinary world bring more pain to the chest of a dog owner than one simple word: cancer. The mind instantly goes to the perceived harshness of chemotherapy or radiation treatments, possible remission, and perhaps a greater still possibility of losing the battle altogether.

Despite the connotations of cancer, conditions such as kidney and heart disease can be much more difficult to treat and have a poorer chance of survival– but this doesn’t stop the specter of cancer from casting a dark shadow over your pet and family.

As is the case with humans, there are a multitude of cancers that affect the organs and systems of our dogs. Included in this are tumors of the skin, digestive, respiratory, musculoskeletal, reproductive tracts, and nervous system, and blood-borne cancers.

An obvious first question to a diagnosis of cancer in our dogs is simply, why? The simple answer is that there is no definitive reason. While some cancers are more specific to certain breeds, factors such as age, genetics, and environmental and lifestyle factors also play a role. There is no reliable formula to determine whether or not your dog may one day be afflicted.

Recognizing the Signs of Cancer in Dogs

According to Veterinary Oncologist Dr. MJ Hamilton of Crown Veterinary Services in Lebanon, NJ, there are many signs that could be indicative of cancer. “Usually, we’ll see big changes at home. So things like decreased mobility, lethargy and changes in appetite, inability, or collapse to urinate,” says Dr. Hamilton.

While those signs can be a result of many other conditions, says Dr. Hamilton, a diagnosis of cancer comes from further testing. “Usually it’s during a workup that you’ll find it; either through an ultrasound, biopsy, or cytology .”

Treating Cancer in Dogs

When it comes to treatment of cancer in dogs and other pets, they are generally the same as in humans– surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Veterinary medicine has made some recent strides in treatments, such as immunotherapy or antibody therapy, but these are less prevalent than the first line treatments.

The course of your dog’s treatment will be determined by your veterinarian or veterinary oncologist, and will depend on the type of cancer, as well as other factors.

Chemotherapy can be adjuvant: used after a tumor is removed in the hopes of killing the remaining or residual cancer cells; neoadjuvant: which is used prior to surgery in the hopes of reducing the size of an existing tumor; or induction: which is used to hasten remission for specific blood borne cancers.

Unlike people, most dogs will not lose their fur during chemotherapy, but some breeds (those with continuously growing haircoats like poodles and Old English Sheepdogs) might experience some thinning of hair. Your dog might also experience temporary diarrhea or vomiting and have less of an appetite between treatments.

Chemotherapy can result in a lowering of white and red blood cell counts, which can affect the immune system and the ability to fight infection. Your vet will keep track of your dog’s progress through bloodwork, and may make changes in the dosage or choices of drug that are used for treatment.

” It’s often used for tumors that we can’t surgically remove because they’re up against necessary structures such as the heart or brain. Chemotherapy is a systemic treatment– once we inject it, it goes all throughout the body battling microscopic disease when it starts spreading to other locations. Again, radiation is more localized.”

” A definitive radiation therapy protocol is given once daily– usually with between 16 and 20 daily treatments– so it takes about three or four weeks,” says Dr. Chetney. “An individual treatment takes about a half and an hour to two hours, and most of that time is spent waiting for the patient to become sleepy from the sedative, and then later to recover from the anesthesia. The treatment itself only takes about 5-10 minutes.”

Once a cancer diagnosis is determined, among the first considerations is cost. Consulting with your vet or oncologist will certainly help get a ballpark figure for a route of treatment, but he or she may be hesitant on nailing down a specific figure.

Veterinary insurance is an option and should cover cancer treatment (most likely partially)– but as is the case with people, rules concerning pre-existing conditions will most likely prevent you from getting coverage once your dog has been diagnosed. Your veterinary oncologist will lay out a treatment plan and proposed rate, but there are many factors that can affect the eventual cost, as well as aftercare.

According to the National Canine Cancer Foundation, an initial visit to confirm a cancer diagnosis can be upwards of $200. Major surgery to remove a cancerous tumor deep inside the body, or that will require reconstruction, can start at $1,500. Chemotherapy treatments might range from $200 to $2,000, depending upon the type and severity of the cancer. Radiation therapy can range from $2,000 to $6,000 or higher. You will also need to factor in prescriptions that might be needed for aftercare, such as pain meds or antibiotics– which could cost another $30 to $50 per month for an indefinite period.

” What’s not totally addressed in the veterinary oncology community is nutrition. We’re so dependent on processed, commercially available pet foods, primarily kibble, and really it’s not the ideal thing for any pet to eat. It’s fairly simple to make dietary changes to a whole-food based diet that can really benefit whole-body health.”

Dr. Mahaney is dubious of most of the current state of available pet foods that make up the multi-million dollar pet food industry. It all begins, he says, with the concepts of “feed grade” products that are welcome for animals, but judged unsuitable to be fed to humans.

Dr. Mahaney believes in a life-long pet diet that consists of whole and human grade foods. His top choices are Honest Kitchen and Lucky Dog Cuisine.

” Even if you can’t afford such pets foods– they can be prepared at home with fresh meat and vegetables instead of kibble,” says Dr. Mahaney.

Mold-produced toxins (called mycotoxins), including Aflatoxin and Vomitoxin, can irritate the intestines, supress the immune system, and are carcinogenic (cancer causing). You want to be sure that while your pet is being treated that their food is not going to further contribute to cancer.”

While a diagnosis of cancer in your dog is by no means a death sentence, it’s sure to be a stressful time for both dogs and their families. Your veterinarian and veterinary oncologist will work with you to find the best choice of treatment and help walk you through any costs and difficulties that come with it.

# 10– Pale Gums

Know what a healthy dog’s mouth looks like so you can tell when your canine’s isn’t. Very pale gums could mean blood loss, and cancer is one of many illnesses associated with this symptom.

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It’s a dog owner’s worst nightmare hearing the four words: “Your dog has cancer.” It’s a stark reality for many. In fact, one in three dogs will develop cancer, according to the National Canine Cancer Foundation. Cancer occurs in both mixed breed and purebred dogs (depending on the cancer, some breeds like Great Danes, Saint Bernards, Boxers, Boston Terriers, and Golden Retrievers are considered at high risk). Canine cancer can happen at any age but most often it occurs in older dogs, which is partially because dogs are living longer due to modern, enhanced nutrition and veterinary care.

According to the American Kennel Club’s Canine Health Foundation, the most common types of canine cancer include:

Hemangiosarcoma

Lymphoma

Malignant Histiocytosis

Mammary Cancer

Mast Cell Tumors

Melanoma

Osteosarcoma

Prostate Cancer

Transitional Cell Carcinoma
Catch It Early

One of the most common ways dog owners detect cancer is by finding a lump or a mass on their dog (the dog typically isn’t bothered by the lump). It’s important to clarify, just because you find a lump, doesn’t mean it’s cancer. Still, a veterinarian should investigate any lump as soon as possible.
Symptoms to Detect

The National Canine Cancer Foundation says there are 10 warning signs your dog might have cancer:

Abnormal swellings that persist or continue to grow
Sores that don’t heal
Weight loss
Loss of appetite
Bleeding or discharge from any body opening
Offensive odor
Difficulty eating or swallowing
Hesitation to exercise or loss of stamina
Persistent lameness or stiffness
Difficulty breathing, urinating, or defecating.

If you find a lump or your dog has any of the other symptoms above, don’t delay in getting it investigated by your family veterinarian. If it’s confirmed your dog has cancer, it’s advised to get a second opinion– possibly by a board-certified veterinary oncologist– to discuss your options.

Some cancers can be cured with one or a combination of treatments, but sadly, many can not and merely delay the inevitable. Some pet owners opt out of treatment completely and instead help their dogs with pain management (palliative care) throughout the course of the disease.
Cancer Prevention

While not all cancers can be prevented, certain steps pet owners can take to help their dogs have a lower risk of developing it. Some veterinary experts encourage giving your dog antioxidants in supplement form like vitamins A, C, E, beta carotene, lycopene, and the mineral selenium to help ward off cancer.

The bottom line: Awareness of cancer symptoms and quick action are key to giving your dog the best chance for survival.

WebMD talked to Dave Ruslander, a veterinary oncologist and past president of the Veterinary Cancer Society, about canine cancers and the latest treatments for dogs diagnosed with the disease.

One in three dogs will develop cancer, according to the National Canine Cancer Foundation. Cancer occurs in both mixed breed and purebred dogs (depending on the cancer, some breeds like Great Danes, Saint Bernards, Boxers, Boston Terriers, and Golden Retrievers are considered at high risk). Canine cancer can happen at any age but most often it occurs in older dogs, which is partially because dogs are living longer due to modern, enhanced nutrition and veterinary care.

One of the most common ways dog owners detect cancer is by finding a lump or a mass on their dog (the dog typically isn’t bothered by the lump).