The most dreaded disease – cancer

One of the diseases that pet parents fear the most is cancer. This is the first in a series of articles that will discuss what to look out for, what cancer is, what to expect and how to handle it as a pet parent.


What symptoms should I look out for that might indicate cancer in my pet?

Unfortunately, there are no ‘single’ signs that are indicative of cancer in your pet. Remember that cancer is a syndrome, not a diagnosis, and within the group of cancers there are many different forms. Even within those groups, the cancers are sub-divided according to how aggressive they are, as well as how they grow and invade other tissues, as seen on a biopsy sample.

Large lymph nodes (glands) can indicate a form of cancer, while limping can indicate a different form. Many cancers, and thousands of other diseases, can present as a pet not eating or vomiting or simply being lethargic (sleepy).

Also, it is important to note that cancer can be benign – where it stays more confined to one place and is less or not aggressive in its growth and spread. But cancer can also be malignant – where it is faster to invade and spread. Both types are cancer, but they each have a completely different prognosis outcome.


When should I take my pet to the vet?

It depends on the age of your pet and what signs you are seeing. There is nothing wrong with a wait-and-see approach, if a dog is bright and alert, even with some vomiting or diarrhoea. However, if you are concerned about your pet, the safest thing to do is to let him be examined by your vet to ensure there is nothing wrong that requires further investigation or intervention.

But weight loss or ongoing signs of a dog who looks distressed or sore, as well as a dog with a high heart rate or breathing rate, could be a sign of something more serious and should be seen to sooner.

Any lump or bump that appears on your pet should be checked with a fine needle and assessed to see if it is nothing, benign or malignant.


Are all cancers fatal?

No! Many cancers are benign and can be left, as they will not cause issues or be cured with surgical procedures. Some have low malignancy and can be cured with surgery, followed by radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy. Malignant, aggressive cancers can also be cured, so a definitive diagnosis must be made. But remember, even in cases where cure is not possible, remission (your pet has cancer, but no clinical signs of it) can be achieved and great quality of life can be maintained for months. One must remember that we live 90 to 100 years, while our pets live 10 to 15 years; thus, a 10-year remission in a human is equivalent to a one-year remission in our pets. So, do not expect long remissions, as our pets’ genomes are not programmed for that length of life.


What should I keep in mind if my doctor refers me to a specialist?

Since you have been referred to a new practice for care, that centre would take over all the care and therapy of that individual pet, and you would see them for all issues that arise while under their care. Referral practices like to prove all diagnoses for themselves, as the responsibility for your pet’s life has now transferred to them. Therefore, many blood tests, as well as diagnostic imaging tests, will often be repeated to be as certain as possible that the diagnosis is correct. Previous biopsies might also be sent for a second opinion or for more tests to be performed with special stains or markers.


Does medical insurance pay for treatments?

Medical insurance is wonderful. They do vary in their exclusion clauses – the extent they will pay and for how long they will pay. So, it is important that you, as a client, read all the fine print and compare different policies and companies.

This being said, whenever it is possible, place all pets on insurance, as they usually do pay!


Why are we seeing so much cancer?

Firstly, I do not believe we see more cancer than we used to see. We see more in old animals, but the following must be remembered: we are much better at diagnosing cancer, due to more knowledge, more continuing education of veterinarians and due to better equipment for diagnosing changes in organs.

Also, it must be noted that our pets are living a lot longer, due to better tick and flea prevention and fewer pets being hit by cars with the protection of high fences and walls. I also feel that the premium diets we now feed, with all the research done to balance them, have caused pets to live to a much older age. As we see cancer in older pets, our pets living longer gives us the impression there is more cancer, while in past generations those pets would not have achieved that age. I believe we are seeing the result of a more aged genome that is more predisposed to allow cancerous change.

*Dr Miller is the (title), Johannesburg Specialist Veterinary Centre


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