Q&A Veterinary Cancer


For many people the word cancer conjures up images of pain, decline and death. Veterinarians have learned through the years that when the word cancer is used to describe a pet's disease, often the pet owner immediately develops the impression that little can be done to save their beloved friend. Fortunately, this is frequently not the case, as veterinary medicine has made tremendous progress during the past decades in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer in animals. Successful treatments are becoming more readily available with each passing year.

What is cancer?

Cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the body. Our bodies are constantly producing new healthy cells to replace naturally aging older cells in a controlled, regulated manner. Cancer cells, however, continue to grow regardless of the need for new cells. As they grow and form groups of cells, they become enlarged masses called tumors. Benign tumors are not cancerous as they do not invade surrounding tissues. They simply continue to enlarge with time and sometimes need to be removed as they put pressure on surrounding areas or cause irritation. Benign tumors are usually not life threatening. Malignant tumors however, do invade adjacent areas of the body and utilize nutrition that should be going to the surrounding healthy tissue and organs. Malignant tumors can sometimes spread their cells to other areas of the body, often creating a new tumor - this is called metastasis.

Our pet population is capable of living longer than ever before, thanks to advanced medical care and the excellent treatment many owners afford their pets. As we know with people, the chances of developing cancer proportionally increase as our age increases. Cancer accounts for half the deaths of pets over the age of 10 years, so it is very common to see cancer in our pet population. There are dozens of different types of cancer that can affect our pets, some having a genetic predisposition just like with people. For example, some families of women are very prone to breast cancer and in dogs some lines of giant breed dogs are prone to osteosarcoma, a malignant tumor of the bone.

How can I determine if my pet has cancer?

This is can be difficult because cancer can mimic many other diseases, depending on the organ it grows in (such as liver disease, lung disease, kidney disease and so on). Therefore, it is very important that a pet receive annual physical examinations, especially as it reaches its senior years. A veterinarian can help to distinguish between the different causes of changes in the pet's demeanour through a physical examination, laboratory tests and X-rays. The Veterinary Cancer Society lists the top ten warning signs of cancer as:

1. Abnormal swellings that persist or continue to grow.
2. Sores that do not heal.
3. Weight loss.
4. Bleeding or discharge from anybody opening.
5. Hesitation to exercise or loss of stamina.
6. Offensive odour.
7. Difficulty eating or swallowing.
8. Persistent lameness of stiffness.
9. Difficulty breathing, urinating, or defecating.
10. Loss of appetite.

Your veterinarian can help you determine the causes of these above clinical signs in your pet. Provide your veterinarian with exact details as to when you first noticed the above changes in your pet and give any additional information relating to the condition, because this will help put the whole puzzle together for a complete diagnosis. No one knows your pet better than you!

If a diagnosis of cancer is made in a pet, the veterinarian will carefully determine the type of cancer and its prognosis. This will frequently require a biopsy, blood tests, and X-rays. Sometimes Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) or Computerized Tomography (CT) are also used, depending on their availability to the local veterinarian. If the tumour is determined to be benign, simple surgical removal of the mass may be all that is required. If the tumour is malignant there may be one or more treatment options available. These frequently include surgery, chemotherapy or radiation. Frequently these treatments are used in combination. There are new treatment options all the time, and your veterinarian can investigate these possibilities for you. If your veterinarian does not have a comfort level with treating your pet's type of cancer he or she can refer you to someone who does. Months and years of extra quality life are now attainable for most pets that have developed cancer.

Unfortunately, many of these treatments can be expensive and beyond some pet owners’ reach. ACTSS helps pet owners afford their pet's cancer treatment. If you live in Alberta and cannot afford your pet's cancer therapy, please refer to the Pet Owners Application Form to see if our program can help you.