In my practice I will diagnose and treat several pets with various forms of cancer on a weekly, if not a daily basis. Since we also provide in home veterinary care, we will often be called upon to offer palliative and end of life care for our furry companions. Not unlike in our own species, the developed world carries within its framework an increased risk for some of the cells in our body to go rogue and turn into abnormal cells with the potential to invade and spread into other parts of the body.
The older our pets get, the higher the chances are that they may get cancer. Interestingly, though, the incidence of cancer in cats over 10 years of age is about 35% lower compared to their canine friends (or foes) over 10 years of age. The explanation for this could be that dogs have been subjected to much more directed and controlled breeding practices compared to cats. Think about the numerous dog breeds that man has “created”. The resultant manipulation of genetic material has not only led to major differences in the way dogs look, but has also caused a higher incidence of certain medical conditions, cancers included.
It would be rather naïve for me to claim that genetics alone is to blame for the rise in cancer we see in dogs. But it is a part of it.
When we look at the main risk factors of cancer in the developed world in humans the list goes as follows: tobacco (include cannabis when smoking it), obesity, poor diet, lack of physical activity, overconsumption of alcohol and certain infections (viral or other). With the exception of overconsumption of alcohol one can easily draw parallels for our pets in today’s society. Pets can definitely be exposed to second hand smoke, obesity has never been more prevalent mainly due to overfeeding and lack of exercise, most commercial diets are heat processed and viral infections such as leukemia still claims many lives in unvaccinated cats.
And the list of risk factors is far from complete. The world and the homes we share with our pets is steadily getting more polluted with smog, herbicides, insecticides and pesticides to name a few. Environmental pollution exposes us all to a variety of carcinogens and these carcinogens build up over time. The older we get…
Excessive exposure to sunlight and other radiation sources can all contribute to cancerous changes in the skin of our pets, especially of the hairless areas of their body and more so in those animals with short, white coats.
Maybe one of the biggest factors facilitating the development of cancer is stress. Stress endured for long periods of time poses a big problem for the body. Stress hormones such as cortisol place the body on constant alert exerting an enormous amount of strain on the immune system. All organ systems in the body are affected and the end result is not only physical disease and mental illness but also a decreased ability of the immune system to prevent or delay the onset of cancerous cell growth.
With this knowledge at our disposal we can now make a list of things we can do to keep our pets healthy long-term and to prevent or slow down the onset of cancer.
Become familiar with the common cancerous conditions that may be prevalent in your specific dog or cat breed. Even though we can’t change their genetic make-up, by knowing which types of cancers they are at the highest risk of getting, regular screening for unusual lumps and other symptoms may just offer us a chance to catch disease early and intervene at the early stages of the cancer.
Keep your pets fit. Regular walks and exercise will help keep their immune system strong and offer much needed mental stimulation.
Do not overfeed. Monitor their weight and keep it at an ideal body score. Not too heavy and not too thin. Your veterinarian is your best guide to determine your pets ideal weight.
Feed healthy. You are what you eat. Avoid foods that are highly processed. Look at the ingredient list on the bag of dog or cat food. If there are a lot of ingredients that are difficult to read or understand, such as chemical preservatives, look them up and find out if there is any potential concern that they may be carcinogenic. No different from buying our own foods (I always go for the outer aisles in the grocery store). Maybe you want to investigate making your own food for your pet or even a raw based diet. Regardless, put some thought into it, the most economical, convenient food isn’t always the best choice.
Keep the immune system strong. 60% of the immune system resides in the gut. A healthy gut can help promote a better functioning immune system. Prebiotics (fiber), probiotics, digestive enzymes and other immune boosting supplements are all examples of things one can add to keep our pets cancer free longer.
Avoid prolonged and sustained contact with direct sunlight in susceptible breeds. Use sunscreens to mitigate the harm effects of the sunrays.
Don’t smoke around pets.
Declutter the shared living space from any unnecessary chemicals and possible carcinogens.
Don’t forget those regular veterinary check-ups. Early detection and treatment may make all the difference!
Dr Dirk Dekens, DVM
Montgomery Village Veterinary Clinic & Dekens Housecall Services