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Canine cancer: Signs, treatments, and tips

Cancer: the dreaded “C” word. With over one in four dogs developing a form of cancer at some point in their life, it’s a reality pet parents have to consider. Understanding the signs, treatment options, and potential planning methods can go a long way in reducing the fear associated with canine cancer.

Signs of Cancer in a Dog

Early detection of cancer can lead to early treatment and may contribute to better outcomes. Alert your veterinarian if you notice any of these ten common signs of cancer in dogs:

  • Growing lumps
  • Sores that don’t heal
  • Drastic changes in appetite or weight
  • Bleeding/discharge from body openings
  • Difficulty chewing/swallowing
  • Disinterest in exercise or activity
  • Lameness or stiffness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficultly urinating or defecating
  • Offensive odor

Cancer Treatments for a Dog

While cancer can be a huge scare, many cases of canine cancer can be treated surgically. The most common types treated surgically include breast cancers, mast cell tumors, skin tumors, and soft tissue sarcomas. Aside from surgery, chemotherapy and radiation are common tactics to combat canine cancer.

Chemotherapy can be administered orally, intravenously, stoically, subcutaneously, intramuscular, intratrumorally, or intracavitary. Furthermore, chemotherapy can be adjuvant, meaning it’s used after a tumor is removed to kill any residual cancer cells or neoadjuvant, meaning it’s used prior to surgery with the intent to reduce the size of the existing tumor.

Unlike humans, the majority of dogs do not experience severe side effects with chemotherapy. Some breeds with a continuously growing coat may experience thinning of hair, but it’s more likely your dog will experience temporary diarrhea, vomiting, or loss of appetite between treatments. Less than 5% of dogs treated with chemotherapy experience a severe side effect requiring a trip to the veterinarian.

Since chemotherapy has the potential to lower red and white blood cell counts, your vet will continuously monitor your dog’s blood work to prevent infection due to a weakened immune system.

Depending on the type of cancer, your veterinarian may suggest radiation therapy instead of chemotherapy. Dr. Rick Chetney Jr., a veterinary oncologist who specializes in traditional treatments states, “Radiation therapy is a localized therapy, like surgery. It’s often used for tumors that we can’t surgically remove because they’re up against necessary structures such as the heart or brain.”

While radiation therapy does not cause any direct pain to your dog, various levels of sedation are typically administered to keep your dog still. The treatment itself only takes about 5-10 minutes, but the total time ends up being closer to an hour after waiting for the anesthesia to kick in and then for the dog to recover. These once-daily treatments are usually needed for two to three weeks before radiation therapy is considered complete.

Advice for Dog Parents

While there is no definitive reason, cancer affects some dogs and not others, common factors tend to include breed, age, genetics, environment, and lifestyle. However, there is no way to determine if your dog will ever be affected.

Even though you are not able to predict if you will have to face cancer with your dog, there are three things you can focus on right now: proper nutrition, adequate exercise, and sufficient dog insurance. Breed appropriate nutrition and exercise will be the first step in preventing canine cancer, but they will not always be sufficient. According to the National Canine Cancer Foundation, confirmation of cancer can cost at least $200; and after diagnosis, chemotherapy can range from $200 - $2,000 per treatment. In the case of Riley, an Irish Setter diagnosed with cancer, the total cost of treatment was $5,793.69. In the unfortunate situation where your dog is afflicted with cancer, having reliable pet insurance will help to provide financial peace of mind.

While we hope you never have to face it, knowing the symptoms and treatment options of canine cancer as well as appropriate planning methods can reduce the fear associated with a diagnosis. 

If you have experience with canine cancer, as a pet professional or pet parent, what advice would you give current dog parents?

Kelsie McKenzie is the owner and fur-covered girl behind the scenes of It's Dog or Nothing, a resource for ‘all things Pyrenees.’ She currently lives near Seattle with her Air Force husband and two Great Pyrenees, Mauja and Atka. Kelsie is also a content creator, social media manager, and an avid animal lover.

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