A five-year-old female golden retriever was brought to me a few months ago with a tumour on her tummy. Considering how young she was, I didn't think it was anything to be concerned about. However, as a routine, we sent it for testing after surgically removing it. The test result showed mammary carcinoma, the canine equivalent of breast cancer. It took me by surprise considering how young the dog was.
As the lifestyle of people and their pets change, more and more pets are being diagnosed with cancer. Once associated with older pets, the disease appears to be on the rise among younger canines, which is a matter of concern. Of course, one could argue that with the growing diagnostic abilities at veterinarians’ disposal lately, we are able to detect malignancies in even younger pets now.
Some of the common cancers that are seeing are mammary gland cancers, bone cancer, cancers of the mouth (oral cavity), and intra-abdominal tumours. Even cats are susceptible to the disease. However, the incidences have not been as alarming at in the case of dogs.
Changes in lifestyle, exposure to the same toxins as humans, inbreeding, and a lack of knowledge could all play a role in contracting the disease. So, what possible preventive steps can pet parents take to ensure the safety of their fur babies?
Maintaining a healthy diet and getting regular exercise is essential preventive measures. Studies have revealed that neutering female dogs before their first heat lessens the risk of mammary cancer. Similarly, cats that are neutered at a young age are less likely to develop mammary tumours.
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Large breed dogs, on the other hand, are predisposed to orthopaedic anomalies if neutered before their first heat. As a result, it's a challenging issue to negotiate. Depending on the breed of the dog you have, your veterinarian can assist you in making the best decision.
As a pet parent, you can keep a lookout for signs and symptoms. Any lump or growth felt on the body should be tested. The sooner it’s diagnosed, the easier it is to treat.
Keep a watch on unexplained weight loss. You would notice blood in the urine if your pet has bladder or kidney cancer. Swelling of the leg, discomfort and limping are common symptoms of bone cancer.
Many malignancies can be halted in their tracks with surgically removing the lump with enough normal tissue surrounding it. That would suffice. As bone malignancies are aggressive, they almost always necessitate amputation. Fortunately, pets on three legs can still walk properly and live a happy life.
Chemotherapy is used to treat cancers of the lymphatic and vascular systems, such as lymphoma (a kind of cancer that affects the lymphatic system) and leukemia. I recall putting a four-year-old beagle, diagnosed with lymphoma, through chemotherapy, who is now in remission.
Chemotherapy is generally feared because of its negative side-effects. However, pets have a higher tolerance to this line of treatment than humans do. They don't appear to have the same level of discomfort, nausea, or hair loss. As a result, if your pet is diagnosed with a malignancy that requires chemotherapy, it is a highly practical option to choose.
Then there is radiation therapy, which is currently accessible only in a few centres in India. This is more precise, and mostly used to target mouth and nose tumours. Mouth cancers spread quickly and, if left untreated for too long, can result in the removal of associated skull bone. They usually go unnoticed till the growth blocks an entire nasal passage. So, pet parents should seek medical attention immediately.
Although malignancies of the nose are not always visible, any blood-tinged discharge from the nose should be taken seriously. I have noticed that pet parents bring their pets with nose cancer to the doctors too late, after the malignancy spread to other organs such as the lungs, making it far more difficult to treat.
For the many forms of cancers that we now see in pets, distinct protocols are in place. It offers us hope that science has progressed far enough to allow us to extend the lives of cancer-affected pets.
I once diagnosed bladder cancer in a 10-year-old cocker spaniel. After undergoing surgery, the dog was put under oral chemotherapy to slow the spread of the cancer. He lived for three more happy years on this palliative chemotherapy before dying of natural causes at 13. During those three years, the cancer in his bladder grew, yet it did not adversely impact the dog.
It's heartbreaking to see pets develop cancer. However, I've discovered that they are very capable of dealing with it. It also makes me glad that we can now successfully treat and cure a greater number of pets than we could even just a decade ago.
Dr Nameeta Nadkarni is a practising veterinary soft tissue surgeon and pet blogger from Mumbai, who loves to play the piano in her free time and is ruled by her whimsical cat, Catbury, at home.