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Understanding Cancer in Pets

Understanding Cancer in Pets

The word “cancer” strikes fear in the hearts of many people. It’s common for people to avoid conversations on cancer (whether in humans or in pets). In fact, some people live in denial and avoid seeking medical attention (whether for themselves or their pets).

Unfortunately, cancer is very common in pets. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, “almost half of dogs over the age of 10 will develop cancer” and “Dogs get cancer at roughly the same rate as humans”. Although there is less information on cancer in cats, some places estimate that 1 in 5 cats will develop cancer.

Therefore, there’s a need to address cancer in pets. In order to respond to a problem effectively, it’s important to understand it well. This article aims to improve pet owners’ understanding of cancer in pets, and allay some concerns.

What is Cancer?

Cancer is a type of tumor. Our entire body (e.g. skin, organ, hair, bones) is made of cells. When a group of cells perform the same function, they are known as “tissues” (not the tissue paper that we use to blow our noses!)

A “tumor" refers to extra cells that result from the uncontrollable growth and division of existing cells. These extra cells do not benefit the body. These cells can appear as lumps and bumps on the body, and/or invisible to the naked eye as they are spreading within the body.

Is a tumor always dangerous?

Tumors can be “benign” or “malignant”. “Benign” tumors do not spread to other parts of the body, and they also cannot invade tissues. However, this does not mean all benign tumors can be left alone. Some benign tumors can interfere with a pet’s quality of life (e.g. a tumor in a dog’s elbow that prevents him/her from lying down properly). These tumors need medical attention.

Also, all benign tumors need to be monitored closely. Any of these benign tumors can be “precancerous” i.e. they can turn malignant. Therefore, it’s common for vets to surgically remove benign tumors (in case they turn cancerous).

Malignant tumors are cancers. Cancer is aggressive; unlike benign tumors, cancer invades tissues and spreads to other parts of the body.

Why is cancer bad?

Since cancerous cells can invade other tissues, cancer can interfere with the tissues’ normal function. This often leads to organ failure and death. For instance, if cancer cells invade lungs, it can affect the ability to breathe. Think about how this can kill the person or pet!

What causes Cancer in Pets?

Short answer: It’s complicated. Cancer is due to an interplay of multiple factors, and not all of them are well-understood. Potential factors may include (but are not limited to):

-Genetics/Breed: Certain breeds are more prone to certain types of cancers. For instance, Boxers tend to be prone to mast cell tumors
-Viruses (e.g. feline leukemia virus of FeLV in cats, some sexually transmitted diseases in pets like canine transmissible venereal tumor

Signs of Cancer in Pets

Lumps and bumps in pets are suspicious. If you notice them in your pet, consult a vet as soon as possible!

Apart from lumps and bumps, there are other signs of cancer in pets. These signs are more generalised. Signs include (but are not limited to):

-Strong odors
-Non-healing wounds
-Poor appetite
-Weight Loss
-Difficulty eating

Even if a pet does not have lumps or bumps, they may still have internal cancers that lead to the above signs. Therefore, if you notice any of these signs in your pet, consult a vet straightaway!

Diagnosing, Grading and Staging Cancer in Pets

If there is a lump or bump, your vet will likely take a sample to examine under the microscope, or send off to a lab for testing. Other diagnostic methods include imaging, blood tests and so on.

Without veterinary diagnostics, it is not possible to distinguish between tumors and other types of lumps. Without veterinary diagnostics, it is also not possible to determine whether any of these lumps are cancerous or not. Therefore, do not try to self-diagnose cancer in your pets!

Your vet will also “stage” and “grade” tumors in pets. “Grading” is an indicator of how likely a tumor is to be cancerous. “Stating” indicates the extent to which a tumor has spread.

Can cancer in pets be completely cured?

The aim of treatment is to remove as much of the cancer from the body as possible.
Cancer can be treated with one (or a combination) of the following modalities: chemotherapy, radiotherapy, medication, surgery etc. For instance, Palladia (Toceranib Phosphate) medication is often prescribed for mast cell tumors.

However, can cancer in pets be completely cured?

Short answer: It depends.

Many factors (type, location, extent of spread) determine whether cancer in a pet can be completely cured. Some cancers can be completely removed if they have been caught early and they have not spread elsewhere. This highlights the importance of frequent, routine vet visits, for they help your vet to catch health problems in their earlier stages and manage them with greater success!

Unfortunately, many kinds of cancers cannot be completely cured. In these cases, medical therapy aims to remove as many cancerous cells as possible, while keeping the pet as comfortable and pain-free as possible.

Is palliative care important for pets with cancer?

Absolutely! “Palliative care” refers to care that relieves/improves symptoms of pain/discomfort. Many pets with cancer are unable to eat or move properly, and they may also vomit and soil themselves frequently. Therefore, these pets will benefit from palliative care.

For instance, pets with eating difficulties may benefit from syringe-feeding. Furthermore, immobile pets that cannot turn themselves may develop pressure sores, so someone needs to turn them often.

Vets often manage cancer-related pain in pets with prescription medication such as Gabapentin and Rimadyl. This should only be obtained directly from a veterinary clinic. If you purchase these medications online, it should be from reputable sources (e.g. an AVS-registered dispensary) and you should have a prescription

You can also consider supplements for pets with cancer. Do ask your vet whether supplements like the NHV ES-CLEAR Dietary Supplement and Himalaya Immunol Immuno-Modulator tablets/liquids suit your pet.

At the end of the day, the best thing you can do for your pets is to monitor them regularly and seek veterinary advice as soon as you notice anything out of the ordinary.

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