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Cancer in Dogs: The Signs and Treatment

Cancer in Dogs: The Signs and Treatment

Cancer is a devastating illness that can affect both humans and our beloved canine companions too. As responsible dog owners, it is crucial to be aware of the signs and symptoms of cancer in dogs to ensure early detection and provide the best possible care. 

Recognising the signs of cancer in dogs and knowing when to seek help from a vet can make a significant difference in early detection. Statistics show that approximately 1 in 4 dogs will develop cancer at some point in their lifetime which highlights the importance of dog owners being aware of the signs of this disease and understanding the available treatment options. 

This guide will discuss the common signs of cancer in dogs, explore different treatment options, and emphasise the importance of regular vet check-ups and early intervention.

Signs of Cancer in Dogs

Attention to changes in your dog's behaviour, appearance, or overall health is crucial for early cancer detection. The signs of cancer in dogs can vary widely due to the different types of cancer that can affect them. While making a definitive diagnosis based solely on symptoms is challenging, several common signs associated with dog tumours should prompt further investigation:

Masses: Look for the presence of lumps or growths, especially those that are growing in size. Palpable lumps or masses that are rapidly growing, changing in size, or feeling firm and immobile may indicate the presence of cancerous growths. It is important to monitor any abnormal growth and have them examined by a vet as soon as possible.

Lesions: Pay attention to sores or wounds that won't heal, even after treatment.

Difficulty in toileting: Unexplained changes in urination or defecation patterns, such as increased frequency, difficulty, or the presence of blood, may indicate cancer.

Vomiting and diarrhoea: Persistent or unexplained vomiting and diarrhoea should not be ignored.

Loss of appetite and weight loss: If your dog experiences unexpected and unexplained weight loss or weight gain, it could be a sign of an underlying health problem, potentially including cancer. Therefore, it is important to carefully monitor your dog's weight and seek guidance from your veterinarian if you notice significant fluctuations. Canines diagnosed with cancer may exhibit a decrease in appetite or an abrupt increase in hunger. Changes in eating habits, such as a reduced interest in meals or an excessive desire for food, could indicate an underlying health issue like cancer.

Difficulty eating or swallowing: Eating or swallowing food could indicate a problem, including oral or throat cancer.

Lethargy and lack of exercise: Cancer can cause dogs to become unusually lazy, tired, and less interested in activities they once enjoyed. If your dog displays prolonged fatigue or seems to lack energy, it could indicate an underlying health issue like cancer.

Stiffness or lameness: Persistent stiffness or lameness, especially if it worsens over time, could be due to bone or joint cancer.

Difficulty breathing: Respiratory symptoms, including persistent coughing, laboured breathing, or abnormal panting, may indicate the presence of lung tumours or other cancers affecting the respiratory system. Immediate veterinary attention is necessary for such symptoms.

Unpleasant smell: Foul odours may indicate cancer, particularly from the mouth or any specific area. While these signs are not definitive proof of cancer, they should alert dog owners to seek further evaluation from a veterinarian. Even if it turns out not to be cancer, these symptoms could indicate other health problems requiring treatment.

Types of Cancer in Dogs

While certain cancers may have a genetic component and be more common in specific breeds, most types of cancer can affect dogs regardless of their breed or size. Here are a few examples of common cancers seen in dogs:

Haemangiosarcoma: Haemangiosarcoma is a tumour that originates from the endothelial cells lining blood vessels. Haemangiosarcoma is commonly found in middle-aged to elderly dogs and has a higher incidence in certain breeds like Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds.

Lymphoma: Lymphoma is characterised by enlarged lymph nodes, commonly observed in areas such as under the neck, in front of the shoulders, or behind the knee. Breeds at an elevated risk for developing lymphoma include Standard Poodles, Golden Retrievers, and Australian Shepherds.

Mast cell tumours: Mast cell tumours can develop anywhere in a dog's body but commonly appear as skin lesions. Mast cell tumours can range from benign to aggressive. Boxer dogs are particularly susceptible to this type of cancer.

Melanoma: Melanoma commonly develops around the eyes, inside the mouth, and occasionally on the foot pads. Melanomas usually appear as small dark lumps but can also be flat.

Osteosarcoma: Osteosarcoma is a malignant bone cancer frequently observed in larger or giant dog breeds. It often affects the long bones in the limbs and presents symptoms such as stiffness, swelling, and pain.

How is Dog Cancer Diagnosed?

Diagnosing cancer in dogs cannot be solely based on symptoms; it requires a thorough evaluation by a veterinarian. If your vet suspects your dog may have cancer they will probably advise a series of diagnostic tests to confirm the presence of cancer and assess its stage. 

These tests typically include blood tests to assess for any abnormalities and imaging techniques such as X-rays, ultrasounds, or MRI scans to visualise the affected areas. In some cases, a biopsy may be necessary to examine a sample of the tumour or tissue for cancerous changes.

Physical Examination: During a physical examination, the veterinarian will assess your dog's overall health, check for any lumps or abnormalities, and evaluate their body condition. This initial assessment provides valuable insights and helps guide further diagnostic tests.

Blood Tests: Blood tests can help identify any abnormalities in blood cell counts, organ function, or markers that suggest the presence of cancer. While blood tests alone cannot definitively diagnose cancer, they provide important information that aids the diagnostic process.

Imaging Techniques: X-rays, ultrasounds, and other imaging techniques can identify tumours, determine their location, and assess their size. These non-invasive procedures are valuable in evaluating the extent of the disease and planning appropriate treatment.

Biopsy: To confirm a diagnosis of cancer, it is often the case your vet will take a tissue sample biopsy from the mass they are checking. This sample is then analysed under a microscope by a veterinary pathologist to determine if it is cancerous and to identify the specific type of cancer present. 

Biopsies can be conducted using different techniques, including fine-needle aspiration, which involves inserting a thin needle into the mass to collect cells, or surgical biopsy, which involves the removal of a larger portion of tissue for examination.

Treatment of Cancer in Dogs

The treatments for cancer in dogs are similar to those used in humans because many types of cancer affect both species. In most cases, a combination of treatments targets the tumour and prevents its recurrence:

Surgery: Surgery is a treatment option for some types of cancer where localised tumours that have not spread to other body areas. The primary goal of surgery is to completely remove the cancerous mass, along with a margin of healthy surrounding tissue, which ensures cancer cells are removed and reduces the chances of recurrence. 

In some cases, surgery may be curative, while in others, it may be performed to alleviate symptoms or slow down the progression of the disease.

Radiation Therapy: Radiation therapy is a treatment method that involves using concentrated and high-energy radiation to specifically target and destroy cancer cells, leading to a reduction in the size of tumours. 

It is often used with surgery or as a primary treatment for tumours that cannot be surgically removed. Your dog may have several sessions of radiation therapy and the side effects and duration of treatment will vary depending on the specific case.

Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy is commonly used for cancers that have spread to multiple body areas or when surgical removal is impossible. Chemotherapy drugs can be administered in various ways, including orally, intravenously, or through other routes, such as subcutaneous injections. 

Treatment often consists of different sessions over several weeks or months, with specific intervals between sessions to allow the body to recover. It is important to note that the chemotherapy drugs used in dogs differ from those used in humans.

Immunotherapy: Immunotherapy is an emerging treatment approach in cancer management for dogs. This therapy aims to activate the body's natural defence mechanisms against cancer.

Palliative Care: In cases where a cure is not possible, or cancer has advanced significantly, palliative care focuses on providing comfort and improving the dog's quality of life. Pain management, dietary adjustments, and other supportive therapies may be implemented to alleviate symptoms and enhance the dog's well-being.

In addition to cancer-specific treatments, your vet may recommend supportive therapies to reduce the impact of the disease on your dog's overall well-being. For instance, a higher-energy diet may be recommended if your dog has lost weight. In addition, if your dog experiences discomfort or pain, your vet can prescribe pain relief medications.

How to Help Dogs Recover from Cancer Surgery

After cancer surgery, ensuring proper post-operative care and aiding your dog's recovery process is crucial. Here are some tips that might help:

Provide rest and gentle exercise: Avoid strenuous activities and opt for gentle walks as the safest form of exercise.

Establish a medication routine: Your dog may need medication after cancer surgery. Set up a system, such as reminders or alarms, to ensure your dog receives the medication on time. Consult your vet if you miss a dose.

Monitor your pet closely: If your dog has had surgery, regularly checking the incision area allows for early detection of potential issues and ensures proper healing. In addition, please pay attention to their overall well-being and report any concerns to your vet. Recovery time varies depending on various factors, but your dog can fully recover with patience, love, and proper care.

Prevention and Early Detection

Regular veterinary check-ups are crucial in detecting any potential signs of cancer in your dog. In addition, routine check-ups allow your vet to monitor your dog's overall health and catch any abnormalities early on.

Remember, this guide is for informational purposes only, and it is important to consult with a qualified vet for accurate diagnosis and treatment recommendations tailored to your dog's specific needs.

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