The Vet Is In: Preventing Cancer in Pets

Dr. Marvin Ordway
By Dr. Marvin Ordway March 15, 2014 15:11

best-with-homer-marv-ordwayDid you know that dogs and cats can get cancer from smoking? Your smoking.

Those turn-of-the century paintings of poker-playing, cigar-puffing pooches notwithstanding, dogs are too smart to smoke. But secondhand smoke from your cigarettes, cigars or pipes can give your pets lung cancer, which although relatively rare (our clinic sees a couple of cases a year) is always fatal. Our Mother Lode counties’ high smoking rates make this a particular concern in the foothills.

So do your pets and your family a favor: Step outside before you light up. Better yet, quit altogether and be a healthier companion for your dog or cat.

Secondhand smoke isn’t the only tobacco risk for pets. Smokers’ cats can get intestinal cancer by ingesting cigarette residue – the grimy, toxic stuff that turns smokers’ fingers yellow and coats walls and windows in their homes – while grooming themselves.

The rate of contracting this always-fatal feline cancer (cats typically die within two years of diagnosis) is several times higher among cats that live in smoking households. In fact it is suspected that some cats in such homes get addicted to the nicotine residue in their fur, become habitual groomers, and thus put themselves at even higher risk for cancer.

Just as cancer of all types is the No.1 killer of humans in the U.S., it is the leading cause of death for dogs and cats, who are susceptible to more than 100 types. Symptoms vary depending on which organ the disease invades.

The most obvious sign is a tumor. Fortunately, most of these growths are benign and only cause problems if they push on blood vessels, nerves or organs, begin to bleed, or produce abnormal hormones. Surgical removal is typically a very effective treatment.

Other growths are harmless accumulations of fat cells or cysts, but pet owners may want to have them removed for cosmetic reasons. Unfortunately, some growths do lead to cancer. The disease occurs when a single cell mutates and begins to reproduce uncontrollably. Some cancers zero in on certain organs, and others can spread through a pet’s body.

Symptoms may include loss of energy, loss of appetite, blood in urine or stool, vomiting or unusual bloating. Your vet can make a diagnosis with blood or urine tests, x-rays or ultrasound.

Treatments vary: Surgery is often successful in removing skin cancers and other forms of the disease that are confined. Other cancers that have spread to multiple areas are usually treated with chemotherapy or radiation.

Radiation can cost thousands of dollars and is administered only at major urban facilities such as UC Davis Veterinary Hospital. Chemotherapy, however, is affordable, can be given by your local veterinarian, and can often keep your pet’s cancer in remission for months while causing very little discomfort.

Doing what you can to prevent cancer in the first place, of course, is a good idea. Because many things can contribute to the growth of cancer cells, there is no foolproof way to keep your pet free of the disease. But in addition to giving your dogs and cats a smoke-free environment, there are a few things you can do to better the odds.

Stay in the shade: Despite their coats of fur, animals are subject to cancer when exposed to the sun for long periods of time. Short-haired dogs can contract skin cancer on their bellies by lying on their backs in the sun. Cats’ eyes and ears are most vulnerable.

Provide a healthy diet: Beware of cancer-causing omega 6 fatty acids, found in cottonseed, soy, corn and other vegetable oils, as well as in organ meats and grain-fed red meats. These ingredients are found in both dry and canned dog foods, so it pays to read labels. Cats metabolize omega 6 acids more effectively than dogs, so these are not a significant feline health issue. Fruits, vegetables and some nuts may help prevent some cancers. Consider supplementing your dog’s diet with fruits and vegetables such as apples, pears, melon, walnuts, almonds, broccoli, carrots and sweet potatoes. But discuss this with your veterinarian first – apple seeds, raisins, grapes and macadamia nuts can harm dogs.

Be a weight watcher: Anything that causes inflammation can also damage your pet’s DNA and set the stage for malignant cell growth. Because obesity causes generalized inflammation throughout the body, it is a major risk factor in animals just as in humans. Obese dogs and cats also produce less of the cancer-inhibiting hormone adiponectin. So keep your dog or cat trim by not overfeeding and by giving plenty of exercise and playtime. Take your dogs for walks and throw sticks or balls for them. Use a collection of cat toys to keep your tabby sharp, energetic and amused.

Give extra care to senior pets: The risk of cancer increases when animals age, as gene mutations are more common in elderly pets and immune systems are less effective. So it is up to owners to keep a sharper eye out for potential medical problems and seek treatment when necessary. All dogs and cats over age 9 should have a thorough vet exam twice a year to catch and treat cancer as early as possible. The earlier the diagnosis, the better the outcome.

Be breed savvy: This is a tricky one, as each breed has its very loyal adherents. But those in the market for a dog should know that some breeds – golden retrievers, Bernese mountain dogs, boxers, pointers and Boston terriers – have a genetic predisposition toward some types of cancer. This is not to say avoid such breeds, but simply be aware of the risks going in. Purebred cats have no such predisposition to cancer.

In conclusion, cancer in our pets is never welcome and sometimes tragic. But with proper owner care it can often be prevented and with advancements in veterinary medicine, treatment can often bring months or even years of additional time with your four-legged family member.

Marv Ordway owns and operates Twain Harte Veterinary Hospital.

Copyright © 2014 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Dr. Marvin Ordway
By Dr. Marvin Ordway March 15, 2014 15:11
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