Many pet owners are not aware that cancer will account for half of all disease-related pet deaths, or that a quarter of all dogs develop a tumor during their lifetimes. Cancer occurs somewhat less frequently in cats but is usually more aggressive. Early cancer detection can save or prolong your pet’s life. It also allows your veterinarian to provide pain management and other support therapies to keep your pet comfortable.
Your pet can’t talk, so it’s up to you to watch out for cancer’s warning signs. Here are some common signs that it’s time to bring your pet to your vet for an examination.
Unexplained lameness: A possible indication of bone cancer, which can be diagnosed with X-rays.
Trouble urinating: Blood in the urine or straining to urinate. Infections in your pet’s urinary tract are much more common. However, recurrent problems may point to bladder cancer. Your vet can run tests.
Loss of appetite/weight loss: Your pet has less interest in eating, or is eating just as much but is chronically losing weight. This can indicate many different problems, not necessarily cancer, but it is a classic symptom of cancer.
Repeated diarrhea or vomiting: This requires prompt attention by your vet, whatever the cause. One possibility is a tumor somewhere in the gastrointestinal tract. Your vet can use tools such as endoscopy, X-rays and ultrasound to diagnose the problem.
Coughing/breathing difficulty: An older pet with a dry cough or troubled breathing should be examined via a chest X-ray for possible lung cancer or some other cause. If you smoke cigarettes, consider stopping — if not for yourself, at least for your pet, who is undoubtedly breathing in second-hand smoke.
Bad breath: Dental disease is the most common cause of halitosis. But oral tumors can also cause foul breath. You might also notice your pet chewing only on one side of the mouth. Your vet can examine your pet’s mouth and take X-rays or a CT scan. This may require your pet to be sedated first.
Unexplained bleeding: Bleeding not explained by an injury should be checked out right away. The bleeding may often emanate from the pet’s nose, mouth, gums or genitals. This sudden appearance of bleeding in an older pet is especially serious.
Bloating: An abdominal tumor may cause your pet’s belly to swell. This can also be due to internal bleeding. Your vet will use an X-ray or ultrasound to help diagnose the cause.
A lump: Tumors, whether malignant or benign, can enlarge sufficiently to create a noticeable lump. If you notice the sudden appearance of a lump, or a change in size to an existing one, your vet can perform a biopsy to identify the type of tumor and, if indicated, remove it.
Swollen glands: Just like humans, dogs and cats have lymph nodes throughout their bodies. The ones easiest to detect are located behind the jaw. If they appear swollen, the pet might have lymphoma. The diagnosis usually requires cytology or a biopsy.
Behavioral changes: If you pet becomes listless, aggressive, weak or undergoes some other sudden attitude change, it may indicate that the pet is in pain or discomfort. This can stem from many reasons, including a tumor.
Open sores: A wound that does not heal or the sudden appearance of one or more sores can indicate a serious medical issue.
Pale gums: If your pet’s gums become and stay very pale, it can indicate blood loss, a common symptom of cancer.
Many animal cancers respond well to treatment. Once your vet diagnoses cancer, you’ll be told of one or more options that work best for the type of cancer found. Some common treatments include:
Surgery: Removal of tumors by a veterinary surgeon in an effort to cure the pet or prolong its life.
Chemotherapy: Chemical/drug attack on growing cancer cells. The side effects vary with the chemical agent uses, as well as with the pet’s own constitution. One thing to keep in mind is that pet chemotherapy attempts to minimize side effects and discomfort. There are many types of chemotherapy and treatment should be tailored to your pet’s specific needs.
Cryosurgery: Using liquid nitrogen to treat small tumors, especially on the skin, mouth and eyelids. This technique is less expensive, quicker and safer than full-blown surgery, but is only applicable for superficial tumors.
Vaccine: Dogs with melanoma may survive longer when given canine melanoma vaccine used as an adjunct to surgery and/or radiation therapy. This treatment is conditionally licensed for use by certified veterinary oncologists and involves a series of injections.
Radiation: Strong electromagnetic beams are aimed directly at the tumor in a series of exposures over the course of several weeks. Radiation therapy may be used in conjunction with other treatments.
Your vet has the skill and resources to diagnose and treat your pet’s cancer, but early detection and treatment are the keys to your pet’s successful recovery. Stay alert to any unusual symptom your pet displays and promptly bring it to the vet if the problem persists.
Dr. Paul has a strong interest in avian and exotic animal medicine and surgery, as well as small animal internal medicine and surgery.
He has provided services for numerous breeders, kennels, aviaries, and mini zoos.