When you look at your adorable, energetic, healthy young pet, you probably aren’t worried about their cancer risk—but perhaps you should be. This isn’t to say you should live in fear of a cancer diagnosis, but rather that you should develop a healthy knowledge about the condition. Cancer is the leading cause of death in older pets, although pets of all ages are susceptible, and detecting cancer in the earliest stages and starting treatment early can greatly improve your pet’s prognosis. Our Boca Midtowne Animal Hospital team wants pet owners to become educated about cancer in pets, so we are answering your most common questions to help you recognize potential cancer signs. 

Question: What is cancer?

Answer: Cancer refers to abnormal cell growth in the body where the cells often form a mass of tissues (i.e., a tumor). Any body cell has the potential to become cancerous, and cancer cells, which grow faster than normal cells, can quickly spread to other body parts (i.e., metastasize). The body has many distinct cell types, and the many cancer types affect the body differently. An early, accurate diagnosis will determine your pet’s treatment and prognosis, and the best chance for successful cancer treatment is through early detection.

Q: Are some pets more prone to cancer?

A: Cancer can affect pets of every age and breed, but environmental factors, such as obesity or exposure to second-hand smoke, pesticides, chemicals, and the sun’s ultraviolet rays, can increase a pet’s risk. Large-breed dogs, such as boxers, German shepherds, golden retrievers, and Bernese mountain dogs, have a higher cancer risk. 

Q: What are the most common cancer types in pets?

A: Cancer affects dogs and cats, with 50% of senior dogs developing some form of cancer. Less information exists about the cancer rate in cats, possibly because fewer pet owners take their cat to the veterinarian for routine or preventive care. Common canine cancers include:

  • Lymphoma 
  • Hemangiosarcoma
  • Mast cell tumors
  • Melanoma
  • Osteosarcoma

Q: What are the cancer signs in pets?

A: While detecting some cancers in pets can be challenging, you can help ensure your pet’s cancer is diagnosed early by routinely checking for the following: 

  • New lumps and bumps on or underneath the skin
  • Limping or lameness
  • Non-healing wounds
  • Coughing or breathing difficulties
  • Abnormal odors from the ears or mouth
  • Rapid weight changes
  • Decreased stamina
  • Loss of appetite
  • Bleeding or discharge from body openings

Q: How is cancer diagnosed in pets?

A: If your pet shows signs consistent with cancer, immediately schedule them for a veterinary physical examination. Your veterinarian can perform multiple diagnostic tests to determine if your pet has cancer, including:

  • X-rays to look for a tumor, pinpoint its location, and detect any cancer spread 
  • Complete blood work
  • Fine-needle aspirate or biopsy to collect tumor cells for microscopic analysis
  • Advanced imaging, such as an MRI or CT scan

Once a diagnosis is determined, your veterinarian will discuss treatment options.

Q: How is cancer treated in pets?

A: A pet’s specific treatment plan depends on the cancer type, stage, and location, and the pet’s age and health. The most common cancer treatment options include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, which can be used alone or combined. 

  • Surgery — Surgery can partially or completely remove the cancerous tumor and is most successful when the tumor has not spread beyond its original location. Partial tumor removal (i.e., debulking) can relieve your pet’s pain and increase their mobility, and can be used to improve the effectiveness of radiation therapy or chemotherapy.
  • Chemotherapy — Chemotherapy is a component of most treatment plans and is used along with medication to manage certain cancer types. Because chemotherapy alone seldom cures cancer in pets, this modality is used most often to control cancer that has spread around the body early in its development and to control further cancer spread. Chemotherapy can also be used to fight the remaining cancer cells when surgery does not completely remove a tumor. Pets generally tolerate chemotherapy much better than people, usually with only mild side effects that last a few days. 
  • Radiation therapy — Radiation therapy delivers enough radiation to destroy or injure cancer cells and prevent them from reproducing, while minimizing damage to the surrounding healthy tissues. Radiation therapy is often recommended for tumors in the head and neck, spine, or pelvis. In addition, radiation therapy can be used combined with surgery or chemotherapy, or both, and typically requires multiple doses per week for four to six weeks.

Cancer affects many pets at some point, and monitoring your pet regularly for possible cancer signs is vital, so any problem is caught as early as possible. If you suspect cancer in your pet, contact our Boca Midtowne Animal Hospital team to schedule an appointment, so we can quickly determine a definitive diagnosis and formulate a treatment plan, if necessary.