Pet Cancer Signs and Tips

A growing number of dogs and cats are diagnosed with cancer each year. In fact, about 1 in 3 dogs will develop cancer, which is the same incidence of cancer among men, and up to 50% of dogs and cats will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime.

Each year, veterinary oncologists at BluePearl Specialty and Emergency Pet Hospital consult with approximately 19,800 pets for issues related to cancer. While there are several options for treating pets with cancer — including surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy and radiation (just like in human medicine) — cancer is one of the most common disease-related causes of death for dogs and cats.

November is National Pet Cancer Awareness Month. Joshua Lachowicz, DVM, DACVIM, board certified veterinary oncologist and medical director of BluePearl in Queens, New York, offers a few expert tips to help you know the signs of cancer.

“Cancer is more common in dogs than cats. But when we see cancer in cats, it may be in a more aggressive form,” explained Dr. Lachowicz. “Because cats are inherently deceptive and experts at hiding illness, their cancer tends to be more progressed when it is diagnosed. That’s just one of the many reasons it is important to have your pet screened regularly by a veterinarian, and that you as the pet owner are educated on the possible symptoms of cancer.”

Just like in humans, feline/canine cancer is a disease that tends to have a better prognosis the earlier it is diagnosed, so it is important for you to know the warning signs. Dr. Lachowicz says the two most common signs to look for are growing lumps or sores that fail to heal.

Warning signs of cancer in cats and dogs include:

  • Persistent or abnormal swelling
  • Sores that do not heal
  • Loss of weight and/or loss of appetite
  • Bleeding or abnormal discharge from any opening
  • Difficulty eating or swallowing
  • Lethargy or loss of stamina
  • Persistent lameness or stiffness
  • Difficulty urinating, defecating or breathing

“When normal bodily functions such as breathing, swallowing or going to the bathroom become labored or painful, have your pet checked out. Sudden, extreme discomfort or pain are common signs of illness or injury in pets that shouldn’t be ignored,” said Dr. Lachowicz.

While it is hard to prove “cause and effect,” Dr. Lachowicz says there are some environmental influences that may contribute to the development of pet cancer. Here are some proactive measures that you can take to help reduce the risk of pet cancer:

1. Keep your pet at a healthy weight.

Provide nutrient-dense food that includes all the essential minerals and vitamins that a cat or dog’s body needs to stay healthy, strong and energetic.

2. Spay or neuter at an appropriate age.

According to the ASPCA, the traditional age for neutering dogs is six to nine months, but puppies as young as eight weeks old can be neutered as long as they’re healthy. It’s safe for cats at eight weeks old to be spayed or neutered. But it’s advisable to schedule the surgery before your own cat reaches five months of age. Consult with your veterinarian on what works best for your cat or dog.

3. Minimize exposure to carcinogens and other toxins.

This includes secondhand smoke, pesticides and herbicides, which have been associated with increased risk of some cancers. Carcinogens in cigarette smoke can be deposited on a dog or cat’s fur. When they groom or lick themselves or another animal, they unintentionally ingest these carcinogens, which can cause oral tumor development.

4. Maintain routine examinations.

Pets should receive annual checkups by a veterinarian. Geriatric pets, however, should receive veterinary exams every six months, since the risk of developing cancer increases with age (some resources suggest about half of dogs over the age of 10 develop some form of cancer). Exams that include blood and urine tests can lead to early detection of cancer — even if the dog or cat may not show physical or behavioral symptoms of illness. If cancer is caught early, treatment is less aggressive and more likely to result in remission or a cure.