Many of us know someone whose life has been impacted by cancer. Unfortunately, cancer can also occur in our pets. As part of Pet Cancer Awareness Month, Dr. Heather Wilson-Robles, associate professor, and Dr. Brandan Wustefeld-Janssens, a fellowship-trained surgical oncologist at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, discussed everything owners need to know about cancer in pets.
One of the most common types of cancer in pets is skin cancer, Wustefeld-Janssens said. Primary care veterinarians can usually treat cancerous skin tumors without referring the pet to specialty care. However, more serious types of cancer—including tumors that appear in the bone, mouth, glands (such as anal sacs), or lymph nodes—may require surgery, radiation, and/or chemotherapy.
In some situations, Wilson-Robles said a combination of treatments may be necessary to prevent the cancer from relapsing. For example, an animal may undergo surgery to remove a cancerous tumor, but that doesn’t mean the animal is free of cancer cells. The animal may still need chemotherapy to remove remaining cancer cells from the body, which can help prevent the cancer from developing again.
One thing to consider when looking for a cancer treatment is finances. Though pets are often considered family, cancer treatment for our furry friends can get expensive. Wustefeld-Janssens suggested working with your veterinarian to find the most cost-efficient treatment plan.
In addition, Wilson-Robles suggested looking into pet insurance (when you first get your pet) to help cover the cost of cancer treatment. There are also clinical trials you can find at vetcancertrials.org or the American Veterinary Medical Association’s online database. Clinical trials are partially or fully funded programs that determine the effectiveness of a treatment.
“Ultimately, clinical trials are an experimental therapy,” Wilson-Robles said. “If we knew everything about it, we wouldn’t need to do the trials. However, your animal could be getting cutting-edge medicine that they otherwise wouldn’t have access to.”
However, Wilson-Robles added that in some situations, there are no good options for cancer treatment. This may be because the animal is not strong enough to ensure cancer treatment or the cancer is too complicated and dangerous to treat.
“(Instead,) you may consider taking your pet home and keeping him comfortable,” Wilson-Robles said.
This includes providing the pet with any veterinarian-prescribed medications, clean bedding, any comfort items (such as toys), and food and water. If desired, you can even look into hospice care.
You may be wondering, “How can I know if my pet has cancer?” There are signs that may indicate cancer, but these symptoms can also be associated with other diseases and conditions. Report any abnormalities, such as a lump or a bump on the body, unexplained weight loss, limping or lameness, swelling, or bleeding to a veterinarian. The sooner you do this, the better.
“Early intervention is important,” Wustefeld-Janssens said. “If you notice something abnormal, do not wait to show it to your veterinarian; a tumor the size of a grape is a lot easier to treat than one the size of a football.”
Keeping your pet in general good health is the best way to help prevent cancer, Wustefeld-Janssens added. This includes regular exercise, feeding your animal a well-balanced diet, and seeing the veterinarian for regular (at least once-a-year) checkups.
Though a cancer diagnosis can be scary, there are many treatment options available. However, the best treatment is preventative care. Remember to practice healthy habits with your pets and report any abnormalities to your veterinarian in a timely manner.
Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed at vetmed.tamu.edu/pet-talk. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.