We love our pets and do our best to give them a long and healthy life. We plan for the future and dream they will be with us forever….. A diagnosis of cancer can squelch our dreams and catch us off guard. What are the signs to look for? What can you do if your pet has been diagnosed?
Treatment Alternatives For Cats and Dogs With Cancer
Cancer is a disease process in which healthy cells stop functioning properly and abnormal cells begin growing at an out of control rate. Normal cells grow, divide and die in an orderly fashion. Cancer cells grow and divide and instead of dying, outlive normal cells and continue to form new abnormal cells. Some cancer cells can travel to other parts of the body beyond where their development originated and again grow and replace the normal tissue. This process called metastasis occurs as the cancer cells travel through the blood stream or lymph vessels of our bodies.
There are many types of cancer. Cancer can arise in the skin, organs, bone and blood. Some types of cancer are fast growing and other types grow more slowly. Lymphoma is an example of a common form of cancer that we see in dogs and cats.
Common Signs of Cancer In Pets
• Abnormal swellings that persist or continue to grow
• Sores that do not heal
• Weight loss
• Loss of appetite
• Bleeding or discharge from any body opening
• Difficulty breathing, urinating or defecating
• Persistent lameness or stiffness
• Hesitance to exercise or loss of stamina
• Difficulty eating or swallowing
Please note that many of the above signs are also seen in pets with noncancerous conditions. Regardless, these are signs your pet has some type of health condition and a visit to your veterinarian is warranted. Any new lump or growth on your pet should always be checked by the veterinarian. 60% of skin growths on cats are cancerous. Even though dogs have a lower percentage of malignant tumors on their skin, even soft lumps should be aspirated for the presence of unusual cells.
Many times pet owners will notice some of the above signs and bring their pet in for a check-up. Depending upon the timing of bringing their pet in, more or less will be able to be done to help the pet. Initially the veterinarian will recommend some initial laboratory tests such as bloodwork, urine analysis and XRAYS (As a general rule, it is recommended that bloodwork and urine analysis be performed on pets over 6 years annually to maximize the possibility of catching cancer and/or other diseases as early as possible) Most of the time, this will provide some preliminary insight to the veterinarian, but a biopsy is generally required in order to definitively diagnoses the presence of cancer and the type of cancer.
Once diagnosed, there are several avenues a pet owner can explore. If at all possible, it is recommended that you make a visit to a veterinary oncologist, even if you do not wish to pursue chemotherapy or radiation. It is important for you to see an oncologist for a more comprehensive discussion from a specialist and to get a definitive course of action on your options from a conventional veterinary standpoint. Oncologists will have the greatest amount of experience with cancer and will be able to give you an idea about your pet’s prognosis, with or without using various forms of cancer medication. Many times, pets may require removal of a tumor and an oncologist can assist you with this as well.
There are a full range of medical options available for your pet with cancer, and using a combination of both conventional and holistic treatments can most benefit your pet. There are many prescription medications that can help your pet to feel more comfortable and potentially control the rate of growth of the cancer. Remember, quality of life is most important—be sure to watch your pet for signs of extreme discomfort and lethargy. From a holistic standpoint, much can be done to help your pet maintain a higher quality of life (using acupuncture, diet changes, supplements), especially if the diagnoses is made early.
By far, the best results we have seen in cancer patients has been when the pet owner was able to catch the cancer early (as a result of regular laboratory testing) AND when a combination of both conventional and holistic medicine is used. While holistic veterinary medicine cannot cure cancer, it can make a tremendous difference. It is unfortunate that many times, people don’t discover the wonders of giving their pets the best nutrition and supplements until their pet has been diagnosed with a serious illness. The best way to help prevent cancer is to start at the beginning of your pet’s life, giving them optimal nutrition, vitamins, Omega 3s and building a sound immune system. But, even if your pet has been recently diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, it is not too late to make important changes that can give you more time. It is analogous to the advertisements you might have heard about lung cancer and that it is never too late to stop smoking!
One misconception that can be misleading for pet owners is that there is not “one” diet or “one” set of nutritional supplements for a pet with cancer. The reason is that cancer can have many forms, arising in different parts of the body which will affect the pet’s nutritional needs differently. All pets do need nutritious whole foods rich in Omega 3s, vegetables and some quality protein (varies depending upon the pet’s condition). Common sense should be the guiding factor in feeding your pet. Be sure to avoid giving your pet anything with artificial colors, sweeteners or preservatives. Never give animal fat such as chicken skin or fat from a piece of steak for example. Avoid foods made from simple carbohydrates such as biscuits, bread or crackers. Use caution with protein--giving your pet endless amounts of protein is not advisable, everything should be in balance as in some cases (e.g. if the pet has a liver condition) too much protein can be harmful. We strongly urge you to seek the advice of a veterinary professional for dietary advice.
Listed below are some of the more common forms of cancer in pets. As you can see, cancer can develop in different parts of the body and depending upon where it is found, the pets need for nutritional supplements vary.
Lymphoma - is cancer of the lymphatic tissue. The lymph system is a core part of the body’s immune system. The lymphatic system is an extensive drainage network that defends the body against infections. It is comprised of a network of lymphatic vessels that carry lymph (a clear, watery fluid that contains protein, salts, glucose and other substances) throughout the body. The lymphatic system also serves as a low pressure drainage system that collects interstitial fluid throughout the body and returns it to the bloodstream. The most common sign of lymphoma is a painless enlargement of the lymph nodes.
Mast Cell Tumors – Mast cell tumors are among the most common tumors in dogs and are the most common type of skin cancer found in dogs. The most common location to find mast cell tumors is, by far, the skin, followed by the spleen, liver, and bone marrow. Both normal and cancerous mast cells contain chemicals that can be released into surrounding tissues. When these chemicals (particularly histamine) are released into the normal surrounding body tissues, side effects can include digestive problems (for ex: bleeding ulcers), skin rashes, shortness of breath and other symptoms. Mast cell tumors vary greatly in their size, shape, appearance and texture. The only way to definitely identify them is with a biopsy and pathology report.
Hemangiosarcoma – Most commonly found in the spleen, liver and heart and the prognosis is determined by the location of the disease. The cancer arises from the blood vessels and results in the production of abnormal blood vessels that can be weak and prone to leaking. As the cancer progresses, the cancerous vessels can rupture and results in blood loss. As the spleen is the organ most commonly affected by this type of cancer, rupture can lead to blood loss into the abdomen. This is an emergency situation and can result in weakness and collapse. Many pets with hemangiosarcoma often require a splenectomy.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma – Cancer that occurs in the mouth, underneath the tongue or along the gums of the middle-aged and older cats. Common signs of squamous cell carcinoma in cats includes difficulty eating, interest in food but not wanting to eat, drooling and odor from the mouth.
Osteosarcoma -- Osteosarcoma is the most common type of bone tumor in dogs. Osteosarcoma beings in the bone but can spread throughout the bloodstream very early in the course of the disease (metastasis). The most common areas for this cancer to appear are the wrist, shoulder, knee and hip. The first sign of bone cancer is lameness due to pain from the cancer. Swelling often occurs at the tumor site.
Transitional Cell Carcinoma – Tumors usually form at the bladder opening and can cause blockage causing painful urinartion. Pets often strain while trying to urinate. Transitional Cell Carcinoma can be difficult to diagnose because many of the symptoms such as straining to urinate, blood in the urine or frequent urination are often due to a urinary tract infection. This can delay the discovery of the cancer, especially since antibiotics can often result in some improvement of symptoms. Thus, at the time of diagnosis, bladder cancer can be fairly far advanced and have spread to other parts of the body.
Adenocarcinoma – Anal sac adenocarcinomas are tumors arising from the apocrine glands present on either side of the rectum. These tumors can range greatly in size from a very small mass that can be found only after a rectal examination or a large mass protruding from the rectum. While the tumor appears locally, it is quite common for them to metastasize, often to the lymph nodes inbetween the spine and colon. Symptoms vary depending upon the gender of the pet and can include increased thirst, weakness, persistent licking at the site, difficulty defecating, decreased appetite.
Nutritional supplements should address the most critical needs facing the pet which will vary over time. In other words, the supplements that a pet needs at one point in their cancer care most likely will not be the same at a later time. This can be very confusing for pet owners who seek to find a few master remedies that will help to keep their pet comfortable and increase their longevity as much as possible. For example, the most pressing issue at the beginning of cancer therapy may be to help a pet with digestive problems, diarrhea or vomiting and not use any supplements at all specifically for cancer until the pet’s digestive condition stabilizes. Again, we encourage you to seek the advice of a veterinary professional in selecting supplements for your pet as their needs will vary, especially if your pet is undergoing chemotherapy or radiation.
Some key objectives in using nutritional supplementation for cancer are:
1) Supportive care for digestion (many pets with cancer have digestive issues)
2) Supportive care for the organs affected (e.g. liver support supplements if the pet has liver cancer)
3) Immune system support
4) Detoxification to help release toxins
5) Antioxidants to neutralize free radicals (limited use with approval from your veterinarian if undergoing chemotherapy/radiation)
When selecting products specifically for your pet’s cancer, be sure to check whether the products are deemed safe to use during chemotherapy and/or radiation if your pet is undergoing treatment. Good manufacturers will have researched this issue carefully and will advise you. For example, OncoX and Regeneration are two formulas that have been used extensively with cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and radiation.
There is no question that we have seen by far the best results when patients use a combination of both conventional and holistic veterinary medicine when treating their pets with cancer. Regardless of the treatment protocol, a nutritious diet and some carefully selected supplements can only help to strengthen the pet and keep them feeling more comfortable. Research and education are key, as well as working with your veterinarian and other veterinary professionals to ensure that your pet is receiving all of the treatment alternatives possible—both conventional and holistic.