Cancer is the leading cause of death in pets 10 years of age or older. Despite this daunting statement, cancer is also one of the most treatable diseases of old age when caught early. With increasing awareness and availability of cancer treatments, many pet owners are exploring their options when a pet is diagnosed with this disease. There are veterinarians who have gone through training beyond veterinary school in order to specialize in the treatment of cancer, called veterinary oncologists. It is exciting to watch the profession of veterinary oncology expand.
The American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine established board certification in oncology in 1988 and the American College of Veterinary Radiology followed with board certification in radiation oncology in 1994. The years subsequently have seen rapid growth of the Veterinary Cancer Society, which is a non profit educational organization dedicated to the field of veterinary oncology (www.vetcancersociety.org). This society enjoys both national and international membership.
Do you know that there are warning signs you can look for to help decrease the risk of your four legged friend developing life threatening cancer? These include (but are not limited to):
• Loss of appetite
• Weight loss
• Swellings, sores or skin blemishes that do not heal
• Abnormal growths or suspicious lumps
• Swellings in the mouth and around the teeth when the teeth themselves seem healthy
• Tiredness and lethargy
• Poor mobility
• Difficulty in eating or swallowing
• Any breathing difficulties accompanied by coughing, wheezing, or sneezing
• Inability to urinate or blood in the urine
• Difficulty in passing stools or blood in the stools
• Excessive thirst and an increase in urinating
• Abdominal enlargement causing a pot bellied appearance
While these signs do not necessarily mean your pet has cancer, they could be early indicators. The earlier we diagnose cancer, the much greater chance we will have to cure it or control it long term.
Veterinary cancer therapy encompasses several strategies, all of which are combined or selected to optimize patient success rate, but more importantly, quality of life. For most pet parents, quality of life issues are the most important regarding treatment choices. Your veterinary cancer treatment team needs to be well prepared to provide several options to fit a pet owner’s emotional and financial capability. The team also needs to be cognizant of potential side effects in order to appropriately provide options for pets (many are geriatric with other disease conditions!) and to effectively prepare pet parents for possible outcomes.
We recommend yearly physical exams and routine health visits to your regular veterinarian for all dogs under 8 – 10 years old without other major medical problems. These visits are important to help your veterinarian find early signs of cancer! At 8 – 10 years old, your pet is approaching the ‘golden years’ and should have yearly or twice yearly physical exams, routine health visits, and ideally full blood work, a urinalysis, and chest/abdominal x-rays.
Dr. Tracy LaDue
Diplomate, ACVIM medical oncology
Diplomate, ACVR radiation oncology