Cancer is a frightening word, immediately evoking thoughts of battling a relentless, debilitating, painful illness. Our pets are sometimes diagnosed with cancer, too. This is never an easy word to hear, but what it means for pets and what can be done about it might surprise you.
Cancer or malignancy occurs when cells in the body grow abnormally and invasively. Cancer cells come from normal cells that, for a variety of reasons, multiply uncontrollably, don’t listen to the rest of the body, and eventually overrun normal cells. Misbehaving cells are probably common in our bodies, but our immune system usually sees them as abnormal and removes them. Not all tumors (new growths in or on the body) are cancer; many are benign. Usually, cancer is a disease seen in older pets. Some types can be prevented and almost all types have treatments.
Signs that your pet may have cancer:
1. A new growth on your pet’s skin or body. Happily, most skin growths are benign, but they should always be checked by your veterinarian. A simple test, called a fine needle aspirate, can be done in the veterinarian’s office. It causes very little discomfort, rarely requires sedation or anesthesia and the results are quick.
2. Weight loss. If your pet is eating normally, but losing weight, you should let your veterinarian know. Many times, the cause is not cancer, but this kind of weight loss should be addressed and treated.
3. Lameness. Most causes of lameness or limping are due to injury or arthritis. Rarely, cancer can be the culprit.
4. Vomiting and/or diarrhea, loss or change in appetite. These are the symptoms the digestive tract will show, regardless of the cause of the illness. These symptoms are very common in pets and rarely due to cancer. However, if your pet is experiencing these symptoms continuously or repetitively, a discussion with your veterinarian is warranted.
5. Coughing. This is the most common symptom the respiratory tract will show. Again, there are many non-cancerous reasons a pet may cough, such as infections, heart disease, or asthma, but accurate diagnosis is needed.
6. Changes in behavior or energy level. Some symptoms of disease can be subtle. But if you notice things such as your pet not greeting you as usual or not playing as usual, talk to your veterinarian. Don’t assume your pet is slowing down just because he or she is getting older.
Can anything really be done? Perhaps you are reluctant to talk to your veterinarian, because you are afraid treatment will be expensive, or hard on the pet, or fear nothing can be done anyway. These are all understandable concerns, and topics your veterinarian will discuss honestly with you. Diagnosis starts with a simple physical examination. Other tests include fine needle aspirates, blood tests, urinalysis, x-rays, and biopsies. Advanced imaging, including ultrasound, MRI, and CT is sometimes recommended. If a diagnosis of cancer is made, treatment options range from something as simple as a diet change all the way to surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. Herbal medicine or acupuncture could be part of your pet’s treatment plan. However, there is an important difference in the approach to treatment in pets compared to people. People can consent to all types of therapy, knowing and understanding the risks and side effects. Since pets can’t make these choices for themselves, treatments that will cause discomfort or severe side effects are generally not recommended. If the cancer cannot be cured, surgery, chemotherapy and radiation may still be used, but in amounts that are likely to improve the pet’s quality of life and unlikely to cause dangerous side effects.
Your regular veterinarian is trained and prepared to diagnose, treat, and monitor many types of cancer. In the Richmond area, there are a number of veterinary specialists including board certified veterinary surgeons, internists, and oncologists. Board certification means these doctors have participated in extended years of study in their field, contributed to the field, and passed additional testing to ensure their high level of expertise. If you choose, these experts will enhance the care your regular veterinarian provides.
If the diagnosis and treatments are too costly for your family, what can be done? First, be sure to let your veterinarian know if you are troubled by financial or philosophical questions. Together, you can create a plan that works for you and your beloved companion.
If you’re reading this thinking you would want to do whatever possible to extend the life of your pet, you might consider pet insurance. Insurance will not cover everything, but it can remove some financial pressure, and as a result, increase your options. Pre-existing conditions are usually not covered, so it is important that a policy is in place before the diagnosis is made. Additionally, there are companies that work with owners and veterinarians to provide short-term, low interest, credit for veterinary bills. Sometimes, there are clinical trials for cancer therapies that will offset much of the costs, including examinations, treatment, and monitoring. In return, you may be asked to comply with particular schedules, record keeping, and possibly travel. Finally, there are non-profit organizations dedicated to helping pets and their families faced with a diagnosis of cancer.
How can you prevent cancer in your pet? Just like people – with a healthy diet, exercise, and regular checkups. Avoid obvious dangers such as exposure to second-hand cigarette smoke or freshly applied lawn herbicide. Also, spaying or neutering your pet goes a long way toward preventing most reproductive system cancers.