Pets and cancer: what your vet wishes you knew

Pets and cancer is not something we’ve historically associated with veterinary care but the reality is, cancer in pets is increasing. Thanks to modern medicine and excellent nutrition, dogs and cats are living a lot longer, but as they get older their chances of developing cancer grows too.

Here’s what your vet would like you to know about pet cancer:

  1. Pets and cancer: it’s not all the same

Cancers are broadly classified into two categories based on their aggressiveness. Benign cancers are not life-threatening, do not spread, and respond well to surgery, if needed. Malignant cancers are serious, can spread and may be life-threatening.

  1. Pets and cancer require prompt action

One of the most important factors in treating cancer is to catch it early. Even small lumps and bumps should be checked by a veterinarian, though because not all cancers present as a lump or bump, yearly health checks will help identify potential problems as your vet will do a thorough examination. A weight check may flag weight loss issues, for example, which is one of the commonest signs that organ cancer might be present. Early diagnosis and treatment offer a better chance of cure.

  1. Allow testing when possible

If possible, allow veterinarians to perform their recommended tests. Often all you need with a lump or bump is a small sample of cells drawn from the lump with a needle, but if this isn’t enough a biopsy may be necessary. This offers a more accurate diagnosis, which can help in deciding the best possible treatment plan. Each type of cancer has its own behaviour, and knowing which cancer is present helps guide treatment recommendations.

  1. Treatment options

Surgery is often the most often used treatment option. As cancer is made up of abnormal cells, removing them with surgery can often be curative. However, some cancers cannot be removed completely or have spread beyond a specific site, in which case additional treatments are needed.

Chemotherapy can be very effective for some cancers, and the wonderful thing is that animals do not show nearly as many side effects as humans. The drugs are often the same, but the side effects are not. Pets do not lose their hair, feel very sick or show the nausea that we often associate with humans undergoing chemotherapy. This is not to say that side effects will never occur, but if they do, they are generally mild, very treatable, and greatly preventable. And chemotherapy is often quite affordable.

Radiation can also be considered in pets. In some cancers this is the treatment of choice, though radiation centres are limited. It is hoped that more treatment centres will become available in future.

All EberVet clinics offer consultations on any lump or bump and can often perform the surgery required to remove the lump. Dr Morné de Wet at our Cottage Vet clinic in Gordon’s Bay is able to perform advanced cancer removal, including those involving organs. We also offer comprehensive chemotherapy options and can refer to a specialist if the need arises.

Article by Dr Morné de Wet, Cottage Vet Clinic

(edited by Toni Younghusband)