It’s a dog owner’s worst nightmare hearing the four words: “Your dog has cancer.” But it’s a stark reality for many. In fact, one in three dogs will develop cancer, according to the National Canine Cancer Foundation. Cancer occurs in both mixed breed and purebred dogs (depending on the cancer, some breeds like Great Danes, Saint Bernards, Boxers, Boston Terriers, and Golden Retrievers are considered at high risk). Canine malignancy can happen at any age but most often it occurs in older dogs, which is partially because dogs are living longer due to modern, enhanced nutrition and veterinary care.
What Is Cancer?
But first it’s important to define cancer. Cancer is a disease where cells grow out of control, invade surrounding tissue, and may spread (metastasize). Just like in humans, cancer can take many forms in dogs. The disease can be localized (in one area) or generalized (spread throughout the body). Cancer is considered multifactorial, which means it has no known single cause but heredity and the environment are thought to become factors.
According to the American Kennel Club’s Canine Health Foundation, the most common types of canine cancer include:
- Malignant Histiocytosis
- Mammary Cancer
- Mast Cell Tumors
- Prostate Cancer
- Transitional Cell Carcinoma
Catch It Early
While canine cancer can be treated (with varying success) using surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and immunotherapy, the best thing you are able to do is to catch the disease in its early stages - before it spreads. Early detection is critical for successful treatment and recovery.
One of the most common ways dog owners detect cancer is by finding a lump or a mass on their dog (the dog typically isn’t bothered by the lump). But it’s important to clarify, just because you find a lump, doesn’t mean it’s cancer. Still, a veterinarian should investigate any lump as soon as possible.
Symptoms to Detect
The National Canine Cancer Foundation says there are 10 warning signs your dog might have cancer:
- Abnormal swellings that persist or continue to grow
- Sores that don’t heal
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Bleeding or discharge from any body opening
- Offensive odor
- Difficulty eating or swallowing
- Hesitation to exercise or loss of stamina
- Persistent lameness or stiffness
- Difficulty breathing, urinating, or defecating.
If you find a lump or your dog has any of the other symptoms above, don’t delay in getting it investigated by your family veterinarian. Some veterinary experts encourage giving your canine antioxidants in supplement form like vitamins A, C, E, beta carotene, lycopene, and the mineral selenium to help ward off cancer.
Some cancers can be cured with one or a combination of treatments, but sadly, many cannot and merely delay the inevitable. Some pet owners opt out of treatment completely and instead help their dogs with pain management (palliative care) throughout the course of the disease.
While not all cancers could be prevented, certain steps pet owners can take to help their dogs have a lower risk of developing it. For example, having your dog spayed or neutered at a young age can help prevent reproductive cancers. If it’s confirmed your dog has cancer, it’s advised to get a second opinion - possibly by a board-certified veterinary oncologist - to discuss your options. Healthy nutrition and exercise are also believed to assist prevent cancer from developing.
The bottom line: Awareness of cancer symptoms and quick action are key to giving your dog the best chance for survival.