Learn about cancer in dogs, what it is, the treatment for cancer in dogs, and how monitoring can be the difference that improves quality of life.
Cancer: It’s the diagnosis every dog owner dreads.
Indeed, according to the AVMA it’s a common condition with one-in-four dogs likely to develop cancer during their lifetime, rising to one-in-two dogs over the age of ten years.
But common as cancer in dogs is, there’s much misunderstanding about the condition. Instead of worrying, proactively find out the facts about your dog’s health so you are empowered to decide which treatment is best for your pet.
Signs of Cancer in Dogs
The first hurdle is to recognize that the dog has a health problem. Rather than enter a state of denial and hope the problem with go away, act and visit the vet. A cancer caught early is more likely to respond to treatment, and for many cases a cure may be possible.
Common Dog Cancer Symptoms
Cancer symptoms are often vague, non-specific or relating to the body system affected, so just because your dog has diarrhea doesn’t automatically mean he has bowel cancer..
Changes to look out for include:
- Weight loss or gain
- Decreased appetite
- Increased thirst
- Lack of energy
- Changes in behavior
- Sickness or diarrhea
- Heavy breathing
- A swollen belly
- Lumps and bumps
- Pale gums
- Unexplained lameness, pain, or swelling
- Spontaneous bleeding
What is Cancer in Dogs?
Cancer is caused by the uncontrolled multiplication of cells, causing an inappropriate growth of tissue. Any tissue in the body can give rise to cancer cells, so the name of the cancer depends on its behavior and the tissue of origin.
Cancer acts on the body in different ways and the outlook can range from unlikely to do harm, to life-threatening. The key terms to be aware of are:
- Benign: These cancers are usually not aggressive and don’t spread to other parts of the body. However, some benign tumors can cause trouble locally.
- Malignant: Unfortunately these are the bad guys because they spread to other organs, seeding off cells and invading other tissues.
Before starting treatment the vet will assess or ‘stage’ the cancer. This is seeking answers to questions such as:
- What type of cancer is this: Benign or malignant?
- Is there evidence of spread to local lymph nodes?
- Are there any secondary tumors
Often, this means taking a biopsy to determine what kind of cancer it is. If the biopsy result shows a lump is benign, then further tests are unlikely to be needed. But if the lump is malignant then further screening is required to check lymph nodes and image the lungs and internal organs.
Types of Cancer in Dogs
Cancer in dogs can occur in any body tissue. According to Cancer Vets the five most common types of dog cancers they treat are:
- Mast cell tumors: Most commonly occur in the skin. Most likely to affect Boxers, Boston terriers, and Golden Retrievers.
- Melanoma: Darkly pigmented lumps, often affecting the mouth
- Lymphoma: An over-production of lymphocytes (cells of the immune system)
- Osteosarcoma: Bone cancer
- Hemangiosarcoma: A cancer affecting bloods vessels and blood-rich organs such as the spleen or heart
However, lots of less serious cancers are successfully treated in primary veterinary clinics (first opinion practices).
- Lipomas: Fatty lumps
- Histiocytomas: Small skin lumps, often occurring in young dogs, which may spontaneously regress
- Benign mammary lumps: Breast cancer that doesn’t spread
- Cysts: Fluid-filled swelling within the skin
- Papillomas: Virally induced skin tumors
Skin cancers are easier to detect because they’re on the outside of the dog for all to see (albeit hiding under a thick fur coat!). Therefore it’s wise to regularly check your dog for new lumps or bumps. Become familiar with your dog’s skin and body during his grooming sessions, and you’ll quickly spot changes.
If you discover a new lump, always get it checked by a vet. There’s a good chance a round, slow-growing lump will be nothing to worry about, but best be sure all the same.
However, the following signs are all ‘red flag’ signals, which mean the visit is urgent.
- Rapid growth in size
- Change of color, especially if dark pigment is present
- Irritation, redness, or soreness; with the dog itching, rubbing, or licking the lump
- An irregular (not round) shape
- The lump seems anchored to tissues beneath the skin
- Multiple lumps
- Lumps in the mammary area
How Can I Help my Dog Deal with Cancer?
Well done! You’ve taken the first step to helping your dog fight cancer by not hiding from the truth. Knowledge is strength, and by knowing the nature of the enemy you can defeat it.
It might be your dog needs chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or surgery…or you may have decided to take no action but to keep the dog comfortable and pain-free. Whatever your decision about the way forward, know you can make a difference in his quality of life.
- Pain Relief: Whether due to surgery or cancer pain, it’s important to keep the dog comfortable. There are many options for effective pain relief from non-steroidals for mild discomfort, to opioids for more severe distress. A PetPace collar can help you recognize when the dog is in pain, even when you’re not there to see it, and therefore ease distress.
- Appetite: If his appetite is failing, then hand-feeding or providing high calorie convalescent foods or broths can help. Speak to your vet about drugs that relieve nausea and minimize the side effects of treatment.
- Nursing Care: Never underestimate the importance of providing a comfortable, warm bed, and assisting a dog with mobility issues, out to the toilet. Simple things like wiping eyes and dampening a dry mouth make a big difference to comfort.
- Daily Life: Keeping the dog in routine is hugely reassuring to him. Where possible, carry on as normal with walks, grooming, playtime, and meals.
- Recognizing Deterioration: If the cancer is terminal then ensuring he doesn’t overstep the mark and suffer is vital. Again, a PetPace collar can help you track the dog’s daily activity levels for trends, along with other indicators of pain and discomfort such as increased heart and respiratory rates.
Dog Cancer Treatment
Just as human medics specialize, so do veterinarians. Where appropriate, your primary veterinarian may suggest referral to a specialist veterinary oncologist for treatment. Depending on the type of cancer, treatment options include:
- Surgery: For many lumps, surgical removal is the best option. For benign cancers or a malignant lump caught early, surgery may be curative.
- Chemotherapy: The aim with chemo in dogs is to maintain their quality of life, whilst extending survival time. This means using lower drug doses then is used in people, so the patient is less likely to suffer severe side effects such as hair loss or profound nausea.
- Modern Therapies: There are now drug options that can be effective against mast cells tumors. Medications such as masinitib (Masivet ™) and toceranib (Palladia ™) offer new hope to dogs with generalized mast cell tumors.
- Radiotherapy: Specialty centers can target certain cancers using ionizing radiation to kill malignant cells. The treatment is usually weekly, and requires a full general anesthetic.
How to Help your Dog Fight Cancer
And finally, monitoring plays a crucial role in your dog’s fight against cancer. It’s essential to recognize the dog is in pain or not comfortable in any way. The signs can be subtle, which is where a PetPace collar is a valuable ally.
Simple clues such as restlessness at night (when you’re asleep), a racing heart or low HRV may be the only signs your dog is not comfortable. With a PetPace collar these vital signs are monitored 24/7. This enables you to build a historical record of what’s normal for your dog, which in turn means you can spot changes and alert you and your vet. Indeed, the data can be relayed direct to your vet via the cloud, so they have the information at their fingertips and can take immediate action.
Whatever your decision about managing your dog’s health, know modern technology has a role to play in keeping your pet pain free.