Cancer. It’s the one word no one ever wants to hear when they take their pet to the veterinarian. The word itself has such a negative connotation that I frequently avoid using it when consulting with my clients. The strong emotional response to “cancer” is certainly understandable. Many of my clients have dealt with the heartbreak of cancer with other pets, friends, family members, or even themselves. The thought of a loved one suffering with what is frequently fatal condition is devastating. Financial concerns, which are often substantial, are another harsh reality.
The notion of a part of the body growing out of control for no apparent reason is bad enough, but the aggressive and expensive treatments used for cancer, such as surgery, radiation and chemotherapy can be frightening as well. It’s hard to determine if cancer in pets is more common than it was in years past, but many veterinarians who have been in practice for a long time seem to believe it is. Studies show that almost one in four dogs will develop cancerous conditions in their lifetime, and 50% of dogs and cats over the age of 10 will die of cancer. Cats have lower rates of cancer than dogs, but cat tumors are much more likely to be malignant than benign. Quite sobering statistics indeed.
Cancer occurs when a cell’s damaged DNA no longer controls normal growth and division. The term “malignant” is used to describe tumors that aggressively spread into surrounding tissues, or spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body. Sometimes blood cells become malignant, and build up in the bloodstream or lymph nodes. Thankfully, not every lump or bump that you may find on your pet’s body is a malignant. Actually, most of the tumors I see in older dogs in my clinic are benign fatty masses called lipomas, or small wart-like skin growths called adenomas. Tumors like these are “benign,” meaning that even though they may grow slowly in size, they do not spread to other body parts nor invade aggressively into surrounding areas.
Although there are many different theories as to why cancer is so prevalent in our pets, genetics certainly plays a big factor. Different breeds of dogs have much higher incidence of certain types of malignancies than others. Rottweilers and Great Danes are frequently afflicted with bone cancers, for example, while Boxers are prone to mast cell tumors. Bernese Mountain Dogs get cancer so often that I would recommend not getting one at all. In an attempt to genetically modify dogs into what we want them to look like or behave, humans have inadvertently concentrated recessive, cancer-causing genes in certain breeds.
Other contributing factors include poor nutrition, stress and exposure to environmental toxins — just like in humans. Malignant tumors at the site of certain vaccinations are well documented in cats. Although not widely accepted in the conventional veterinary community, many vets like myself believe that over-vaccination is another significant causative factor in the incidence of cancer in dogs, cats and horses.
If your pet does develop a cancerous condition, be aware that there are holistic therapies including herbs and nutrition that can significantly slow, or even reverse the progression of tumors and cancer. Even if it is not possible to completely “cure” a pet’s cancer, it may be possible for an animal to live with its condition with an excellent quality of life, often forbmonths or even years longer than was thought possible. In other cases, there are alternative treatments that can enable animals to respond better to conventional surgery and chemotherapy.
Fortunately, there are things you can do to decrease your pet’s chance of developing cancer.
*Feed high quality diets: Better ingredients and less toxins in the diet make for a healthier body tissues and a stronger immune system. Avoid feeding nothing but “processed” commercial diets. Supplement with fresh meats, vegetables and omega 3 fats, or feed a properly balanced homemade diet. (See last month’s article The Kibble Conundrum.)
*Don’t let your pet become overweight: Clinical studies suggest that restricting calories prevents or delays the development of malignant cells. Obesity itself is a recognized contributing factor in cancer in animals and humans alike.
*Reduce exposure to toxins: Avoid or reduce your pet’s exposure to pesticides such as flea and tick products, as well as lawn and household chemicals. Feed organic whenever possible.
*Avoid unnecessary vaccinations: A well functioning immune system guards against the development of malignant cells. Yearly vaccinations for adult dogs, cats and horses are completely unnecessary, and can lead to disordered immune function. Clinical studies consistently show long-lasting, even lifelong immunity to routine puppy and kitten vaccinations for most serious diseases like parvo and distemper. Rabies vaccinations, on the other hand, are required for dogs once every three years by county ordinance