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Cancer in Canines - Unmasking the Silent Threat

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

dog breed that is prone to cancer

Cancer is the abnormality in the cell's normal process of division. An uncontrolled increase in the number of cells occurs, and these cells can originate and settle in any part of the body. However, if not controlled timely, these cells can enter the blood and spread to other parts of the body.

Dog cancer appears to be a fleshy cell mass that you can find under the coat/skin. However, some canine cancers can't be found under the skin; some cancers or cancerous masses can be found deep inside the body. The critical point is to determine the possibility of cancer as early as possible.

Most of the superficial cancers can be found easily. You can feel the tumor growth when petting or bathing your furry friend. It feels like a fleshy mass accumulated in an area. If you observe any accumulation of cells, immediately call your veterinarian so that he can take a sample and diagnose whether the cells are cancerous or not.

What are the causes of canine cancer?

The question that often weighs heavily on the minds of pet parents is, "How does my dog develop cancer?" It's a question born out of genuine concern and a desire to understand the root causes behind this devastating disease. However, providing a precise and straightforward answer to this question is a formidable challenge. The complexity of cancer development arises from a myriad of genetic and environmental factors, making it difficult to pinpoint a single cause.

One of the inherent challenges in addressing this question is that cancer can silently take root within a dog's body long before any visible symptoms or diagnosis occur. This clandestine nature of cancer progression adds another layer of complexity to unraveling its origins. Consequently, while we can identify factors that heighten the risk of cancer development, accurately attributing a singular cause to cancer remains elusive.

Among the factors that contribute to an increased risk of cancer in dogs, several stand out:

  • Nutrition: Diet plays a crucial role in a dog's overall health, and certain dietary habits may elevate the risk of cancer. Ensuring a balanced and nutritious diet is essential in promoting well-being.

  • Hormones: Hormonal imbalances can sometimes influence the development of specific types of cancer in dogs, emphasizing the importance of regular veterinary check-ups and hormone management.

  • Environmental Carcinogens: Dogs, like humans, are exposed to a range of environmental factors that can pose cancer risks. These include exposure to smoke, environmental waste, pesticides, UV light, radioactive substances, and living in polluted areas. Minimizing exposure to such carcinogens can help reduce the risk.

Italian Spinone is prone to canine cancer
  • Genetic Predisposition: Certain dog breeds are more susceptible to specific types of cancer due to genetic mutations that occur in germ cells and are passed down to offspring. Notable examples include Bernese Mountain Dogs, Rottweilers, and Italian Spinone, which have a higher incidence of cancer within their breed populations.

In essence, while we can identify various factors that contribute to an increased risk of cancer in dogs, understanding the precise cause of cancer remains a complex puzzle. The interplay between genetics and the environment, coupled with the insidious nature of cancer development, makes it challenging to provide a straightforward answer. To protect our beloved canine companions, it is vital to prioritize preventive measures, including regular check-ups, a healthy diet, and minimizing exposure to environmental hazards. By doing so, we can contribute to our dogs' well-being and potentially reduce the risk of cancer development.

How is cancer diagnosed?

Cancer is not as obvious as dehydration or temperature changes. Most of the time, cancers remain hidden or undiagnosed throughout life. Usually, cancers develop silently, and symptoms appear after years; therefore, its treatment becomes tough. However, you can diagnose some of the most common cancers by identifying the following symptoms.

  • An accumulated cell mass under the skin identifies skin cancer

  • Changes in bathroom habits may signify cancer of the urinary or gastrointestinal tract

  • Your dog may get depressed or lethargic without apparent reason

  • For deep cancer, you can observe deep abdominal swelling

  • Your dog can express symptoms of pain without the presence of apparent disease

Dog cancer warning signs photo

These are some of the signs that can tell you there is some abnormality going on with your dog. However, in the end, only a veterinarian can tell whether your dog is suffering from cancer or not. Diagnosis completes after the confirmation of cancerous cells in the sample.

Canine cancer is diagnosed through a combination of methods and diagnostic procedures, which may include:

  1. Physical Examination: The initial step in diagnosing canine cancer often involves a thorough physical examination by a veterinarian. During this examination, the vet assesses the dog's overall health, checks for any palpable lumps or abnormalities, and evaluates the pet's clinical symptoms.

  2. Blood Tests: Blood tests can provide valuable information about the dog's overall health and may detect certain indicators of cancer, such as elevated levels of specific enzymes or substances.

  3. Imaging Studies: Diagnostic imaging techniques like X-rays, ultrasound, and CT scans are employed to visualize the internal structures of the body. These imaging studies can help identify the location, size, and extent of tumors.

  4. Biopsy: A biopsy involves the removal of a small tissue sample from a suspicious growth or tumor. This sample is then examined under a microscope by a pathologist to determine whether the cells are cancerous and, if so, the type and grade of cancer.

  5. Cytology: Cytology involves the examination of individual cells or fluids (e.g., fine needle aspirates) to identify cancerous cells. This method is particularly useful for diagnosing skin tumors or masses.

  6. Histopathology: Histopathology refers to the microscopic examination of tissue samples obtained during a biopsy. It provides detailed information about the tumor's type, grade, and potential aggressiveness.

  7. Specialized Tests: In some cases, specialized tests such as immunohistochemistry or PCR (polymerase chain reaction) may be used to further characterize the cancer and guide treatment decisions.

  8. Exploratory Surgery: In situations where the exact location or nature of the cancer remains unclear, exploratory surgery may be performed. This allows the veterinarian to directly visualize the internal organs and take biopsies if necessary.

  9. Consultation with Specialists: Depending on the complexity of the case, veterinarians may consult with veterinary oncologists or other specialists to obtain a precise diagnosis and develop a tailored treatment plan.

Once a definitive diagnosis is made, the veterinarian can discuss treatment options with the pet owner, which may include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or palliative care. Early detection and a thorough diagnostic process are crucial in ensuring the most appropriate and effective treatment for dogs with cancer.

The photo below to the left is a dog with lipomas. These are fatty lumps on the body that are easily moveable under the skin. They are benign tumors and are not cancerous. The photo below to the right is an osteosarcomas. They will generally look the same, but will be attached to underlying structures (bones and tissues). Usually they are found near joints and resemble swelling. These lumps can also hinder walking and cause pain. These lumps are normally firmer than the squishy feeling of a lipoma. If you are worried about your pup that has a tumor like this, verifying with a vet is the best way to know if it is benign.

dog with lipomas or fatty tumors on its body
osteosarcoma in the dog
Photo credit: Fitzpatrick Referrals

What is the treatment for canine cancer?

The choice of treatment for canine cancer is influenced by several key factors, including the type of cancer, the overall health status of the animal, and considerations related to treatment costs. These health-related factors play a pivotal role in determining the most appropriate course of action when addressing cancer in dogs.

Here are some of the key health-related factors that guide treatment decisions:

  • Age: The age of the dog can influence treatment decisions. Younger, more robust dogs may tolerate certain treatments better than older dogs with age-related health concerns.

  • Type of Tumor: The specific type of tumor or cancer greatly affects the treatment approach. Different cancers may respond more favorably to particular therapies.

  • General Body Health: The overall health and condition of the dog are crucial considerations. Dogs in good general health may have more treatment options available to them.

  • Cancer Stage: The stage at which cancer is diagnosed plays a significant role in treatment planning. Early-stage cancers may be more amenable to curative treatments, while advanced-stage cancers may require palliative care.

  • Biological Status of Tumor: Determining whether the tumor is benign or malignant is critical for treatment planning. Malignant tumors often require more aggressive interventions.

  • Life Expectancy and Prognosis: The dog's life expectancy, overall health status, and the likelihood of treatment success are carefully assessed before initiating any treatment regimen.

The primary lines of treatment for canine cancer closely mirror those used in human medicine. These include:

  • Chemotherapy: Administering medications to target and inhibit cancer cell growth.

  • Surgery: The surgical removal of tumors or affected tissues.

  • Radiation Therapy: The use of focused radiation to destroy cancer cells.

  • Holistic Therapy: Complementary and alternative therapies, such as acupuncture, acupressure, or herbal remedies, which can be used to support conventional treatments.

Treatment decisions are highly individualized and depend on the unique circumstances of each case. In some instances, a single treatment modality may be sufficient, while in others, a combination of treatments may be recommended for optimal results. The choice of treatment is made in consultation with the veterinarian, taking into account the specific type and stage of cancer, as well as the dog's overall well-being and prognosis.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs) for canine cancer.

Q: Are dogs commonly affected by cancer? What are some common types of cancers in dogs?

American Veterinary Medical Association says that 25% of dogs worldwide are affected with cancer at any age of their life. However, fifty per cent of dogs above the age of 10 develop cancer. This is a huge percentage that signifies the importance of canine cancer. Its importance should not be ignored.

Cancers are of various types; however, there are some cancers that most commonly affect dogs. Mast cell tumor, which is commonly known as skin cancer, is the most prevalent type of canine cancer. The other types of cancers common among dogs are as follows.

  • Lymphoma

  • Hemangiosarcoma

  • Bladder cancer

  • Mammary carcinoma

  • Brain tumour

  • Osteosarcoma

  • Squamous cell carcinoma

  • Melanoma

  • Testicular cancer

Q: Why cancer is prevalent in so many dogs?

We can blame the factors that increase the risk of canine cancer. World pollution is increasing day by day, and our reliance on chemical products (plastic) is imposing serious concerns on health. These factors increase the risk of cancers in humans as well as animals.

In addition, we have increased the life span of a dog by evolving our health industry. But these days, dogs are living their lives longer than before, and therefore more animals reach the age when they develop cancer. Also, there are some breeds prone to genetic mutations and the development of cancer.

Bernese mountain dogs are prone to cancer

Q: Why do some dog breeds get cancer frequently?

Germ cells in male and female dogs divide more often. Every time they reproduce, their genetic material gets changes. After every reproduction, each new cell contains a new genome sequence, which increases the chances of genetic abnormality. This genetic abnormality develops cancer, and like other traits, cancer also spreads to offspring. Certain breeds which are prone to cancer transmit cancer to their offspring through genes.

Q: Can crossing between different breeds decreases the chances to get cancer?

Yes! Crossing between different breeds decreases the chances of cancer. The reason lies behind the fact that specific genes express themselves in specific organisms. If a specific gene is abnormal, there are chances that it will not cause abnormality after crossing with a different breed.

Q: My dog is diagnosed with cancer. Is he going to die?

Absolutely not! You should not worry about your furry friend's death because cancers can be treated with surgical interventions. Cancers that consist of a mass of cells are easily removed, and they do not impose serious life threats even after the surgery.

However, if a cancer is not diagnosed early and it gets worse, there are chances that it will implement serious implications. A stage 3 or stage 4 cancer can result in your furry friend's death if it is too late to handle. Any type of cancer, if diagnosed at early stages, can be treated without health concern.

dog walking can help prevent cancer

Q: How can I prevent my dog from getting cancer?

As there are no significant causes of cancer, there are no definite options to prevent your dog from cancer. However, some procedures greatly reduce the risk of getting cancer. One of the procedures is the neutering or spaying of your dog.

If you spay your dog before the first heat, you can greatly decrease the chance of getting mammary cancer. By spaying, you control the influence of hormones which reduces the incidence of cellular abnormality.

Maintaining good care and hygiene reduces the incidence of cancer. Good oral care can decrease the chances of oral cancer. But significant prevention of cancer is not possible because we don’t know the real factor that triggers the cell to mutate.

Q: What’s the success rate in canine cancer?

If we talk about overall malignancies, the success rate is above 60%. But there are a lot of cases of skin cancers that only contains lumps and bumps of cells. The success rate of these types of cancers is much higher. Minor surgical interventions can remove the cancerous cells, and your dog remains healthy.

Q: Can holistic therapy cure cancer?

Let me make it clear that holistic therapy, like using CBD, can’t treat cancer. However, different holistic therapies can prevent the progression of cancer. They can provide relief, help increase the healing process and thus can be used as supportive therapies.

There is evidence of acupressure helping cure cancer patients, but it is best to prevent it from ever occurring. Keeping your pup healthy and using holistic (whole body) practices is always going to be the best option for helping them. Help them stay at a healthy weight, feed good food, exercise and pay attention to changes in attitudes. Using acupressure as preventative care is an amazing way to help support the body naturally.

Final Thoughts: Safeguarding Your Furry Companion

In the realm of pet health, the age-old adage "prevention is better than cure" holds true, particularly when it comes to protecting your beloved canine companion from the shadow of cancer. Your dog's well-being is a precious treasure, and by adopting preventive measures, you can take proactive steps to keep them far from the clutches of this formidable disease.

Regular Veterinary Visits: Routine veterinary check-ups are your most potent ally in early detection and prevention. Regular visits allow veterinarians to monitor your dog's health, identify potential risk factors, and administer timely vaccinations and screenings.

Conscious Health Insights: As a devoted pet parent, staying attuned to your dog's health is of paramount importance. Be vigilant for any signs of discomfort, unusual behaviors, or physical changes. Promptly reporting any concerns to your veterinarian can make all the difference.

Neutering/Spaying: The decision to neuter or spay your dog is not only a responsible choice in controlling pet populations but also plays a role in cancer prevention. This procedure can reduce the risk of certain cancers, such as mammary and testicular cancers.

Cost-Effective Prevention: The financial aspect of cancer treatment can be daunting. By investing in preventive measures and responsible pet ownership, you can mitigate the risk of costly medical interventions down the road.

Early Detection: Swift action can be a lifesaver. If you suspect any health issues or notice unusual changes in your dog's behavior or appearance, do not hesitate to consult your veterinarian. Early diagnosis can significantly improve the chances of successful treatment.

Remember that the bond between you and your furry friend is a profound connection built on love and trust. By being proactive in your dog's health and well-being, you are not only their guardian but also their unwavering advocate. Through vigilant care and responsible choices, you can provide your dog with the best possible chance at a healthy, cancer-free life, filled with joy, companionship, and cherished moments together.

man petting his dog

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