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Oncology resources for pet owners

A diagnosis of cancer in our pets is a stressful and sometimes overwhelming time. There is an abundance of information available for pet owners but sometimes it can be difficult to determine what is truly helpful. The resources below are not exhaustive but hopefully an initial guide for pet owners to find additional information that may help them make decisions for their beloved pets.

“As pet owners ourselves, we’ve experienced the heartache and challenges of a cancer diagnosis firsthand, and we’re committed to helping you make informed decisions and providing the best possible care for your beloved pet. With our comprehensive resources, up-to-date information, and a team of experienced veterinary oncologists, available for referral we hope to help ease the stress of this difficult journey.”

Here you will find resources and information for pet owners:

How do I know if my pet has cancer?

How common is cancer in pets?

Cancer is usually more common in older animals, and is the cause of death in almost half the pet population over 10 years of age.

What are the signs of cancer in a pet?

Most often, a pet’s caregiver will notice a mass on the body, or possibly enlarged lymph nodes. Sometimes the animal may have a reduced appetite and less energy. There may be changes in bowel movements, or there may be an unusual odour from the mouth of a pet with mouth cancer.

While the initial lump or cancer is often the most obvious to a caregiver, other organs of the body may become affected (metastasis), and the function of normal cells may be compromised. For example, liver damage may occur because of the expanding tumour cell population in the liver, and decreased exercise tolerance may happen when the lungs are affected. Normally the bone marrow produces the majority of the blood cells. Tumour cells in the bone marrow can cause fewer normal cells which aid in blood-clotting and infection-fighting to be available. The pet is then susceptible to bleeding and infection.

The affected pet may develop what are called “paraneoplastic syndromes” or tumour-associated conditions. For example, there may be abnormal proteins or too much calcium in the blood due to secondary effects of the cancer. These syndromes themselves can cause acute, life-threatening problems; this is why careful monitoring by the veterinarian is important.

Many of these signs are non-specific, indicating problems other than cancer, and a visit to the primary care veterinarian is always the first step when you suspect cancer in your pet. If a diagnosis of cancer is confirmed, your veterinarian may suggest a biopsy, lymph node evaluation, chest and abdominal radiographs, and standard blood tests and urinalysis, but they may also discuss more complicated procedures.

What are the causes of cancer in a pet?

Cancer is caused by a variety of factors, potentially involving viruses, genetic components, exposure to carcinogens, and other unknown factors. In this respect cancer in pets is the same as in any other animal, including humans. Some cancers are preventable in pets, such as breast (mammary) cancer in dogs which rarely occurs after early neutering.

Know your pet's medical history

Particularly when seeing a veterinarian for the first time, it’s important to give a complete picture of the health status of your pet. If your pet has several health problems or a long history with one, be sure to provide a history of events, recurrences, treatments, medications, and outcomes associated with the condition. A written list can save time and ensure completeness.

Start with a primary care veterinarian

Primary care is a term for the branch of medicine concerned with your pet’s overall, general well being. It is important to have a veterinarian who is familiar with your pet’s medical history and who can serve as their “care ambassador”.

Specialist veterinary care

Although your primary care veterinarian is an integral part of the cancer care for your pet, often you may need to visit an expert in a specific area of veterinary science. These veterinarians have undertaken further training and have achieved certification by various veterinary Colleges. They are often called Specialists, or Board-certified. A veterinary oncologist has completed further training in the treatment of cancer in animals.

I think my pet has cancer

Cancer is the process where normal cells in the body undergo excessive or unrestrained growth. Cancer can occur in any bodily organ and can travel from one part of the body to another distant part by the blood or lymph system. There are more than 100 different types of cancer that can affect our pet companions.

Cancer is usually more common in older animals, and is the cause of death in almost half the pet population over 10 years of age.

Most often, a pet’s caregiver will notice a mass on the body, or possibly enlarged lymph nodes. Sometimes the animal may have a reduced appetite and less energy. There may be changes in bowel movements, or there may be an unusual odour from the mouth of a pet with mouth cancer. While the initial lump or cancer is often the most obvious to a caregiver, other organs of the body may become affected (metastasis), and the function of normal cells may be compromised. For example, liver damage may occur because of the expanding tumour cell population in the liver, and decreased exercise tolerance may happen when the lungs are affected. Normally the bone marrow produces the majority of the blood cells. Tumour cells in the bone marrow can cause fewer normal cells which aid in blood-clotting and infection-fighting to be available. The pet is then susceptible to bleeding and infection.

The affected pet may develop what are called “paraneoplastic syndromes” or tumour-associated conditions. For example, there may be abnormal proteins or too much calcium in the blood due to secondary effects of the cancer. These syndromes themselves can cause acute, life-threatening problems; this is why careful monitoring by the veterinarian is important. Many of these signs are non-specific, indicating problems other than cancer, and a visit to the primary care veterinarian is always the first step when you suspect cancer in your pet. If a diagnosis of cancer is confirmed, your veterinarian may suggest a biopsy, lymph node evaluation, chest and abdominal radiographs, and standard blood tests and urinalysis, but they may also discuss more complicated procedures.

Cancer is caused by a variety of factors, potentially involving viruses, genetic components, exposure to carcinogens, and other unknown factors. In this respect cancer in pets is the same as in any other animal, including humans. Some cancers are preventable in pets, such as breast (mammary) cancer in dogs which rarely occurs after early neutering.

Particularly when seeing a veterinarian for the first time, it’s important to give a complete picture of the health status of your pet. If your pet has several health problems or a long history with one, be sure to provide a history of events, recurrences, treatments, medications, and outcomes associated with the condition. A written list can save time and ensure completeness.

Primary care is a term for the branch of medicine concerned with your pet’s overall, general well being. It is important to have a veterinarian who is familiar with your pet’s medical history and who can serve as their “care ambassador”.

Although your primary care veterinarian is an integral part of the cancer care for your pet, often you may need to visit an expert in a specific area of veterinary science. These veterinarians have undertaken further training and have achieved certification by various veterinary Colleges. They are often called Specialists.

Cancer in Pets

How is my pet likely to respond to treatment for cancer?

For cancer in dogs and cats, expected remission times and life span, or “prognosis”, is highly variable and depends on a number of factors, the most important of which is the type of cancer as diagnosed by biopsy. Other factors that will influence your pet’s prognosis include:

  1. The stage of the disease, which reflects the number, location, and size of major populations of tumour cells in the body.
  2. Whether your pet is feeling sick or not. Loss of appetite is one of the most important symptoms.
  3. Histologic grading: the specific appearance of tumour cells and their pattern of infiltration in various tissues (what the pathologists reports from a biopsy specimen).
  4. The pet’s response to therapy.
  5. The presence of paraneoplastic syndromes (tumour-associated conditions) such as high blood calcium.
  6. The treatment chosen and the care given by the owner-caregiver and veterinarian.

It is difficult at this time in veterinary medicine to accurately predict the prognosis for a given individual pet because not enough is known about the specific way the above factors influence prognosis for the wide variety of cancers that occur.

In general, pets that are not feeling sick and are diagnosed early in the course of tumour growth have a better chance of remission with treatment. Untreated pets with malignant cancer often live 2 months or less, but this varies greatly depending on the type of tumour. Lymphoma and osteosarcoma are two common cancers in dogs. With therapy, many dogs with one of these cancers live 9 months to 1 year. Therefore, a reasonable goal is a 1 year survival. Occasionally the pet will live much longer, up to 2 1/2 years or more. Some animals are truly cured of cancer, but this depends greatly on the tumour type.

Cancer treatment

The treatment of cancer has evolved over the last few decades to parallel treatment in humans, with certain differences. The important difference between cancer therapy in humans, and that offered for pet animals, is in the goals of therapy. In humans, many cancers are cured, and cancer survivors may enjoy many decades of comfortable life. For this reason, treatment of cancer is aggressive and may be associated with side effects. While pet animals are very similar biologically to humans, the chance for survival of decades is remote. Therapies are therefore directed at preserving quality of life; and tumour control, or remission, is the aim rather than cure at any cost.

The goal of veterinary cancer therapy is to achieve a “complete clinical remission” or to make the pet as normal as possible with no outward evidence of cancer. Often the treatment starts with surgery. If the surgeon is unable to remove all the tumour cells without causing compromise to your pet’s quality of life, then radiation therapy may be offered as a follow-up. If the tumour has spread to other sites, or if the risk of spread is very high, then treatment may involve the use of anti-cancer chemotherapy medications. They are used in a set format, or “protocol”. Various such protocols exist, using slightly different drug sequences and dosages.

It is important to recognize that although cancer is a rarely curable disease, your pet can be treated in such a way that a high quality of life is achieved following diagnosis. In this respect, it is similar to treating heart or kidney disease, which can also be fatal. Remember that one of the most important factors influencing your pet’s quality of life and remission time is the interest and dedication of you and your veterinary care team.

Understanding Cancer in Pets: A Comprehensive Guide for Pet Owners

What are the causes of cancer in a pet?

Cancer is caused by a variety of factors, potentially involving viruses, genetic components, exposure to carcinogens, and other unknown factors. In this respect cancer in pets is the same as in other animal and humans.

The Importance of Pathology in Veterinary Oncology

Everybody knows the signs of cancer, but just because the signs are present doesn't mean it is cancer, or what type.

So, how do we as veterinarians and you as a pet owner know whether or not to worry about that lump on your pet?

Once in a great while an oncologist or very experienced general practitioner might be able to give a strong indication of whether a lump is something to worry about, and even what it might be, based just on a physical exam. But the huge majority of the time the decision requires pathology. Yes, veterinarians are special but even our eyes and our fingers are not microscopes!

Dietary Recommendations for Pets with Cancer

Food and eating are an important aspect of quality of life for pets as well as people; and maintaining a good dietary intake helps to make a patient's body more resilient to both disease and treatment.

Caregivers often wonder how best to feed their pets with cancer. As quality of life is always the primary consideration for care of pets with cancer, it’s important to remember that the best food is not only nutritionally complete and appropriate to the individual condition, but should also be enjoyable!

Chemotherapy and pets

The treatment of cancer has evolved over the last few decades to parallel treatment in humans, with certain differences.

The important difference between cancer therapy in humans, and that offered for pet animals, is in the goals of therapy. In humans, many cancers are cured, and cancer survivors may enjoy many decades of comfortable life. For this reason, treatment of cancer in humans is aggressive and often associated with severe side effects. Part of what makes this possible is the availability of intense, specialized supportive care units and strategies for human cancer patients. While pet animals are very similar biologically to humans, these types of supportive strategies are not available for pets; in addition most pet owners and pets prefer to avoid severe side effects and prolonged hospitalization for quality of life reasons. Therapies are therefore directed at preserving quality of life; and tumour control, or remission, is often the aim rather than cure at any cost.

However, most chemotherapy drugs are potentially mutagenic (can cause mutation in the DNA) or carcinogenic (can cause cancer) – this is how they are effective against cancer cells, but the risk involved in contacting small amounts is not yet known. We take precautions to ensure that your pet’s risk of acute side effects is minimized. But it’s also important to consider the safety of anyone else who may be exposed to these drugs, or their metabolites.

The group of medications called alkylating agents, which includes cyclophosphamide, CCNU, procarbazine, chlorambucil, and others, has been associated with the highest risks to handlers; but most entail some level of risk, and it makes sense to pay attention to safety regardless which drug being used. Organ damage and increased risk of fetal loss have been reported in persons handling and administering chemotherapy with inadequate attention to personal safety.

The biggest risk is to the staff at the veterinary practice when handling chemotherapy drugs during any phase of preparation, administration and disposal of drugs or waste. These people are handling the most concentrated form of the drug and do so on a regular basis. You will probably notice that these people employ personal safety measures such as wearing special gloves and using special bottle top adaptors and needles, or wearing gowns, masks, and goggles.

Usually there is no risk to the owner of a pet receiving chemotherapy when routine hygiene is used. However, it is important to be aware of basic considerations involved. The two times you need to take precautions are when administering medications, or when handling bodily wastes.

Surgical options for Pet Cancer: Understanding Amputation

In the course of cancer treatment, surgery can play a major role. More cancers are cured by surgery than by any other treatment modality.

However, many pet owners are concerned about the impact that major, sometimes radical, surgery will have on their pet. For the most part, dogs are extremely resilient and do amazingly well with these types of procedures, and most owners are pleased with the outcome. Nevertheless, the decision to have a “radical” surgical procedure for your pet is a very personal one and depends on many factors including your individual pet’s cancer type and stage; other factors relating to your pet such as age, breed, weight, fitness level, arthritis; and family factors.

Complementary and Alternative Therapies

Many owners of a pet with cancer wish to try anything that may help their pet, and in doing so are interested in trying complementary and alternative therapies either instead of or in addition to “conventional” therapies.

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