November is Pet Cancer Awareness Month, and it’s a great time to spread knowledge about pets and cancer, as well as a time to educate ourselves about the things we can do to prevent or treat cancer in our own pets.
Cancer can be caused by a variety of environmental and genetic factors, and there are many different types of cancer that range in how aggressive and common they can be.
Any dog can contract cancer, but it mostly occurs in older dogs, partially because better nutrition and vet care mean dogs are living longer than in the past. Cancer strikes one in every three dogs, according to the National Canine Cancer Foundation, and 50% of those dogs will die from cancer. For dogs over 10 years of age, approximately half of the deaths are cancer-related.
Cancer is an abnormal growth of cells that are localized in one part of your dog's body or that is aggressive and spreads throughout the body. The causes of cancers are largely unknown, making prevention difficult. Being aware of possible signs of cancer in pets helps provide early detection and care. It’s a heavy subject, but awareness is key to early detection, improving survival chances.
And as always, talk to your veterinarian. They can provide you with a lot of information and advice to help you make good decisions and keep your Greyhound safe.
COMMON CANCERS IN DOGS
Any dog can be susceptible to any form of cancer, although certain cancers that are more common than others in dogs. Some of the most frequently diagnosed cancers are:
Hemangiosarcoma: This type of cancer is associated with the blood vessels in the spleen and/or liver. Oftentimes this cancer does not become clinically apparent until the cancer in the spleen or liver ruptures. When a hemangiosarcoma ruptures, it begins bleeding into your dog's abdominal cavity. This is something that requires emergency surgery to correct.
Osteosarcoma: This is an extremely painful cancer of the long bones. Dogs that develop it will develop a limp. You may also notice behavioral changes such as growling and snapping as they may become more guarded with their painful limb. Sadly, osteosarcoma is one of the leading causes of Greyhound mortality. You can find some good information about bone cancer here.
Lymphoma: One of the most common types of cancers, lymphoma may develop swellings under a dog's jaw, in front of their shoulders, or on the backs of their knees. Of course, just like in people, dogs have lymph nodes have located throughout their body. Depending on the location of the lymph nodes involved, your dog may develop breathing difficulties, gastrointestinal signs, or other symptoms.
Mast Cell Tumors: Mast cells are found in connective tissue and contain the biochemicals histamine and heparin. Oftentimes mast cell tumors will appear as hairless, red raised lesions somewhere on you dog's skin. This type of cancer can spread, so surgical excision followed by biopsy to grade the tumor is recommended.
Melanoma: a skin tumor and common malignant tumor in a dog’s mouth. This type of cancer is more prevalent in thin-coated dogs. Use doggy sunscreen if your hound has bald patches and will be in the sun for any length of time.
SYMPTOMS TO WATCH OUT FOR
There are several symptoms of cancer, though these can vary greatly depending on the type and stage of the cancer. These symptoms can also be similar to those of other medical conditions. If you see any of the following signs that may be symptoms of cancer in your dog, talk to your veterinarian right away:
- Any new lump or bump
- Sores that won't heal
- A change in size, shape or consistency of an existing lump
- A runny nose, especially if it is bloody
- Difficulty urinating or bloody urine, which is also common with urinary tract infections
- Straining to defecate, or thin ribbon-like stools
- Vomiting or diarrhea, both of which are common with many other diseases
- Limping or a change in your pet's regular gait
- Foul breath, excessive drooling or teeth that have moved
- Drainage and odor from the ears, which is also common with ear infections
- Increased water intake and urination
- Lethargy or lack of appetite
- Weight loss
- Difficulty swallowing or eating
- Difficulty breathing
Even if you do not notice any signs or symptoms of cancer in your dog, you should still maintain a schedule of regular vet visits every six months to a year. A routine check-up can sometimes detect cancer before it becomes a major problem, and early detection is very beneficial for successful treatment of cancer.
When your pet is diagnosed, your local vet will refer you to a veterinary oncologist who will make sure to offer the best treatment option for that particular pet patient. Treatment for cancer needs to work with the diagnosis and your pet’s needs individually, so some cases might require multiple treatments while others will be able to achieve remission after just one. Be sure to listen to what your vet recommends for your pet’s unique situation.
Chemotherapy is a common treatment option for more internal, systematic cancers—like lymphoma or leukemia. Because the treatment is processed throughout the body, chemotherapy is able to fight cancerous cells anywhere. It is also important to keep in mind that with chemotherapy, treatment involves visits once every one to three weeks for out-patient therapy.
Surgery is often the best treatment option for tumors. Through surgery, a veterinarian is either able to remove the entirety of the cancerous cells, or able to remove enough that the addition of a chemotherapy regimen or radiation treatment can take care of the rest. Amputation is often recommended for osteosarcoma confined in the limbs.
Radiation therapy uses a stronger version of X-ray technology to target rapidly dividing cells in the area where treatment is applied. Radiation is most often used in combination with a chemotherapy treatment plan or surgery to have the best impact on your pup’s health.
Immunotherapy—enhancing the pet’s ability to generate antibodies against cancer cells or improving the immune cells ability to detect tumors—may be used in certain circumstances.
Palliative care helps to provide your pet with the best quality of life as their time starts to run out. This treatment is not determined to bring your pet into remission or attempt to cure them of their cancer. It is designed to keep your pet feeling well for as long as they remain by your side. Palliative care can act on its own or alongside a treatment plan.
Euthanasia is never any pet parent’s first choice, but there are times when the expectations of a treatment don’t seem very promising, or treatment options and funds run low. None of us want this to be our pet’s best option but when their quality of life decreases immensely due to cancer and there isn’t anything we can do to ease their pain, our last choice becomes the best for our pet. No caring vet will ever recommend euthanasia as the best option unless they have exhausted all of the other ways they can help your pet.
If you are interested in exploring clinical trials, here is an extensive list from the Veterinary Cancer Society:
Also, you might be interested in this article on Financing Large Vet Bills
The best approach to pet cancer prevention is to provide pets with a healthy lifestyle, including a nutritionally balanced diet and keeping up with preventative care. In addition, there are a few proactive measures owners can take to help reduce the risk of pet cancer:
Keep your pet at a healthy weight and provide nutrient-dense food that includes all the essential minerals and vitamins that a dog’s body needs to stay healthy, strong and energetic.
Spay or neuter your Greyhound if they are not already, as directed by a veterinarian.
Minimize exposure to carcinogens and other toxins. This includes secondhand smoke, pesticides and herbicides, which have been associated with increased risks of some cancers. Carcinogens in cigarette smoke can be deposited on a pet’s fur. When they groom or lick themselves or another animal, they unintentionally ingest these carcinogens, which can cause oral tumor development.
Maintain yearly physical examinations for younger dogs, and twice yearly for geriatrics, with your trusted veterinarian. Exams that include blood and urine tests can lead to early detection of cancer—even if the dog may not show physical or behavioral symptoms of illness. Your vet can also give you advice on environmental factors to avoid that can contribute to cancer development. If cancer is caught early, treatment is less aggressive and more likely to result in remission or a cure.
Here are two of the more common cancer misconceptions:
Myth: A biopsy will cause the tumor to spread
First of all, if a biopsy is recommended, it means this diagnostic test is critical to understanding your pet’s cancer. The results of a biopsy provide information on the chances a tumor will spread or come back, both important factors in determining a treatment protocol for your pet. Without that information, treatment is a guessing game. Second, there are established surgical principles to guide the veterinarians in the safe collection of biopsy samples to prevent inadvertent spread of tumor cells.
Myth: Chemotherapy makes pets sick
Because dogs usually receive lower doses of the treatment and often have fewer additional drugs being administered, they may experience milder reactions to chemo. For example, most breeds typically do not lose their hair like people do.
Only about 10% of pets receiving chemotherapy require hospitalization for treatment-related side effects. While that is good, quantitative information coming from peer-reviewed research by board-certified oncologists, this finding is supported by the qualitative feedback of pet families. 87% of pet owners would treat another pet with chemotherapy for lymphoma. In another study of dogs and cats receiving chemotherapy for a variety of tumors, 94% thought chemotherapy treatment was a positive experience for them and their pet. Finally, when the chemotherapy drug carboplatin was used to treat pets with cancer, 89% of pet owners had no regrets when treating their pet with this anti-cancer drug.
THANK YOU, VETERINARY ONCOLOGISTS
Let’s not forget to appreciate the work that veterinary oncologists do every day around the world to help ease the struggles that pet parents go through. We appreciate the scientists working to make treatment easier, more effective, and more available to pet parents for their beloved family members.
ENCOURAGEMENT FOR PET PARENTS
Caring for your pet to the best of your ability every day, with or without cancer, is a job in and of itself, and you’re doing great. They’re your family, and you love them even when they don’t feel like themselves because of their diagnosis or their treatment. But you aren’t alone, other pet parents have experienced what you are going through, and your vet feels the pain with you. It may be hard sometimes, and you may feel like you’re making the wrong decisions, but your pet will always know you love them, and that’s what matters.
Facebook has some wonderful, caring groups composed of people who are at various stages of the canine cancer journey:
Pet Cancer Support
Fighting Canine Lymphoma