What You Should Know: Pet Cancer

As the resident “theme month” specialist here at the PHC blog, I now must turn my attention to a more somber topic than usual. No more Poodle Hula Hoop Month, or National Dress Your Chihuahua like a Burrito Week, but a more ominous topic: the ‘big K’ of cancer. October, in addition to being carved pumpkin and candy corn (blecccch!) month, is Pet Cancer Awareness Month.

Many owners find it amazing that pets can get cancer. Actually, many owners find it amazing that their pets get lots of the diseases the veterinarians treat – diabetes, kidney failure, cirrhosis of the liver, kidney stones. Just about any disease that people can get, an animal can get. (I have yet to see a dog with a migraine or an alcoholic cat, but I’m sure these are just around the corner).

In people, we have great resources for figuring out how often humans are afflicted with cancer. Organizations like the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention track human cancers and other conditions, but for animals there are no such agencies. There are a few registries and some scholarly articles out on the topic, but nothing like the scale we see in people.

We do have some statistics, though. Check out this sobering, and a little depressing, statistic from Dr. Matthew Breen, a veterinary cancer researcher at North Carolina State University: “One in five Golden Retrievers, one of the most popular breeds in the US, is diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma and is likely to die from it. One in eight Goldens is diagnosed with and dies from…lymphoma. In the overall dog population, we estimate 300,000 dogs die from lymphoma each year.”

Cancer can take many forms and show up in many ways.  Just as with people, the sooner it is detected, the sooner you can get started on treatment. Treatments for cancer can include medications (chemotherapy; the ‘chemo’ part just means drugs or medications used to treat cancer, not radiation), surgery, radiation therapy and some specialized treatments like new cancer vaccines. In general, veterinarians are not as aggressive in treating cancer as human MDs are, as we are just trying to give patients back a good quality of life (by controlling symptoms) not totally eradicating cancer from the body so they can live another 30 years. As a result, pets generally do better than people with cancer treatments.

Some signs to watch out for that indicate a need to see your veterinarian:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Seizures in a pet older than 5 years of age
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Lumps on the skin
  • Lethargy or loss of appetite for more than 48 hours

Cancer is definitely a no good, very bad thing, but it is not a death sentence by any means.  Keep an eye on your pet and know their habits, and pay a visit to your trusted family veterinarian if anything seems amiss. If need be, they can always refer you to an oncologist, or veterinary cancer specialist – yes, those exist, too!

-Photo Credit: From flickr by Feverblue

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