By David F. Kramer
According to the National Cancer Institute, “Each year, about 6 million of the 65 million pet dogs in the United States will be diagnosed with spontaneous, naturally occurring cancer. Of the 32 million pet cats, 6 million will be diagnosed with cancer.”
Cancer can strike any part of the body, and while it’s far from unavoidable, there are changes you can make in your pet’s lifestyle that may help keep cancer at bay and beat it should it arise. Here are the top ways to help your pet fight cancer:
For both pets and their people, establishing a relationship with a doctor is crucial. Regular vet visits provide the opportunities for warning signs to be caught early when treatment is most likely to be successful.
“Early detection is key to instating early and effective treatment (whether surgical, radiation therapeutic, chemotherapeutic, or a combination thereof),” says veterinary oncologist Dr. Rick Chetney of VRC in Malvern, Pennyslvania. “Physical examinations with your family veterinarian every six months once your pet has reached advanced age is recommended.”
Keeping your pet at an ideal weight may help prevent certain types of cancer and is key to overall health.
“Keeping a trim body condition will also limit metabolic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, joint pain and progression of arthritis, and benefit a pet with a strong system to withstand treatment if necessary,” says Chetney.
A healthy body weight can be achieved by feeding pets a proper amount of high quality food and giving them regular exercise, including daily walks or a game of fetch for dogs and interactive toys for cats to play with in an indoor environment, he added.
Veterinary oncologist Dr. MJ Hamilton of Crown Veterinary Services in Lebanon, New Jersey, fields plenty of owner’s questions about dietary tips to prevent cancer. But the answer is not always what we’d like to hear.
“Some of the most common questions I get are about diet. There is some prevention that you can get with diet for certain breeds. For example, the Scottish Terrier. There’s a study where they did find that there was a preventative diet you can follow, primarily by adding green vegetables. But as far as I’m aware, that’s the only study, and the only breed,” says Hamilton.
While no diet is sure to eliminate cancer from the equation completely, the best regimen for cancer prevention is simply a nutritionally complete and balanced diet made from quality ingredients. “Some people think that if they feed their dogs only meat that they won’t get cancer,” says Hamilton. “But that’s simply not true.” Studies looking into the effects of modifying the diets of dogs who have been diagnosed with cancer have also failed to produce meaningful results. Talk to your veterinarian about the best options for your pet.
Some breeds do have a predilection for cancer, but they run the gamut in size and shape, and include Rottweilers, Great Danes, German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, Cocker Spaniels, Boxers and other very popular breeds. This is something to keep in mind when deciding which type of pet to get, however, the possibility of cancer doesn’t deter most pet owners from embracing these breeds.
“Certain breeds are predisposed [to cancer], likely due to genetics. When we breed for specific characteristics, we also risk passing down genes that lead to predispositions,” says Dr. Joanne Intile of East End Veterinary Emergency and Specialty Center in Riverhead, New York. “Good breeders are not inbreeding their lines, and we still see cancer in those pets, so the inbreeding that occurs isn’t the only thing to blame.”
Owners can ask their breeders about the health of their puppy or kitten’s lineage, and good breeders will keep that information for years and provide it without question, Intile adds.
Where and how you and your pet make your home is also an important factor in the potential for development of cancer.
“There have been previous studies regarding dogs that live in an urban environment having a higher incidence of nasal tumors (also longer nose dogs breeds), and cats living in homes with higher levels of environmental tobacco smoke having a higher incidence of oral cancer due to grooming toxicants from their fur. In this case, avoiding such environmental exposures is recommended,” says Chetney.
To further complicate things, your pet’s looks can also influence the likelihood that he or she will develop cancer.
“For certain types of cancers, fur and skin coloration can be a predictor of a potential to form cancer. White furred cats that spend a lot of time outside or in the window in direct sun may develop a type of nose, ear, and eyelid cancer called squamous cell carcinoma – a malignant tumor of surface tissues,” says Chetney. “Dogs that sunbathe on their backs, with their thinly furred bellies to the sky, may develop cutaneous hemangiosarcoma – a malignant tumor of blood vessels within the skin,” he adds.
Pigmentation can also play a role in the susceptibility to some forms of cancer even when sunlight is not involved. “Dogs with dark pigment to the tongue and inside of their mouths may develop oral malignant melanoma – a malignant tumor of pigment cells that mimics skin melanoma in humans,” notes Chetney.
In recent years, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) have been used to treat many conditions in dogs, including cancer. While some research suggests that NSAIDs can be used as part of cancer treatment, there is a little evidence that they can be administered as a preventive measure.
“Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as piroxicam, Rimadyl and Metacam act by blocking cell surface receptors called cyclooxygenase receptors. These receptors have been found to be expressed in higher numbers on the cell surface of some cancers of the carcinoma type (surface tissue malignant tumors),” says Chetney.
The use of NSAIDs in your pet is something that should be done only under the close supervision of your vet. “By giving a dog or cat an NSAID, this medication may help to block these receptors, which relay signals into the cancer cells for growth and reproduction purposes. This is equivalent to a human taking an ibuprofen for their cancer,” says Chetney. “These medications have both anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer benefits. Human NSAIDs such as ibuprofen should never be given to a pet, as kidney, liver and GI-tract damage could result, and sometimes prove fatal.”
Think your pet might have cancer? Learn about the top ten signs of cancer in pets and what to do when your dog gets diagnosed with cancer.