Nobody ever wants to think about the “C” word, but unfortunately, just like humans, dogs can be impacted by various forms of cancer. While some types of cancer are caused by genetics, and others tend to impact dogs of certain ages or breeds, the good news is that there are some things dog owners can do to help ward off cancer and ensure a long, healthy life for their beloved four-legged best friend.
What Causes Cancer in Dogs
According to Dr. Brooke Britton, medical oncologist for BluePearl Veterinary Partners in New York City, some of the most common cancers seen in dogs are lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system; oral cancers, particularly malignant melanoma; primary tumors of bone, such as osteosarcoma; cancers of the skin, including mast cell tumors; and bladder cancer, with the most common being transitional cell carcinoma.
“There are many factors that are believed to play a role in cancer development in dogs,” she explains. Some of the known risk factors include obesity, exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke, sun exposure in lightly pigmented, thin-skinned dogs, and exposure to certain older generation pesticides. “Older dogs are more likely to develop cancer than very young dogs, though rarely, certain cancers occur more commonly in younger animals,” she adds.
There are also several breed-specific predilections with regards to cancer risk. For example, bladder cancer typically occurs in middle-aged to older, small- to medium-sized terrier breed dogs, such as West Highland White Terriers, Shelties, Airedales, and Maltese, while bone tumors generally affect large- to giant-breed dogs, she says.
“The question of why dogs develop cancer is somewhat a mystery,” says Dr. Gary Richter, veterinarian and author of The Ultimate Pet Health Guide. “But generally speaking, it’s believed to be a combination of genetics and elements within their environment in most cases.”
Preventing Cancer in Dogs
Since the causes of cancer in dogs can vary, there’s unfortunately no one way to prevent it from affecting your pet. However, Britton notes there are some things dog owners can do to help keep cancer—as well as many other types of diseases—at bay and help your pooch live a long, healthy life.
“Even though there’s no one proven method for preventing cancer in dogs, in general it’s important to feed a high-quality, balanced dog food as their main diet, maintain a weight within a healthy/normal range, provide your dog with regular exercise, and bring him or her in for wellness checks through their primary veterinarian on a regular or yearly basis so that if a problem develops, it can detected and addressed as soon as possible,” she advises.
Just like in people, veterinarian stress the power of a healthy diet and active lifestyle when it comes to preventing disease. “You can’t control a lot of things in your dog’s environment, but there are some things you can—feeding them the right food and providing clean water, minimizing medications whenever possible, and, of course, providing them with plenty of opportunities to exercise,” Richter adds.
When it comes to taking the first steps towards preventing cancer in your dog, in some cases, pet owners should stop engaging in risky behaviors themselves—secondhand smoke, for example, is believed to be one of the primary causes of cancer in dogs. “People need to stop smoking, and not just themselves, but for their pets,” asserts Dr. Joyce Login, veterinary medical lead of pain, oncology, and specialty at Zoetis. Other common advice for humans when it comes to avoiding certain cancers, such as melanoma, also applies to our pets. “Dogs shouldn’t be exposed to direct sunlight for long periods of time, particularly breeds that are predisposed to skin cancer—think white dogs with pink noses—as they can develop squamous cell carcinoma,” she says.
Another very important thing to do is to ensure that your pet is spayed or neutered at the appropriate time, Login notes, to prevent the development of related cancers, such as mammary tumors, later in life. “It’s why veterinarians really harp on people to get their pets spayed or neutered—it’s not just to address the overpopulation issue, but to decrease their chances of developing diseases like cancer,” she says.
Treating Cancer in Dogs
Just like in humans, if a dog does develop cancer, today’s technology has made it so that a cancer diagnosis is no longer a death sentence. Generally, the treatment options canine cancers range from chemotherapy and radiation to surgery and immunotherapy, and Richter notes that more holistic treatments are also available, from dietary changes and herbal therapy to medical cannabis.
In fact, Britton notes that many cancers are treated as chronic diseases in veterinary medicine. “Even if a cancer is not considered to be curable, significantly longer survival with improved quality of life is possible for many dogs with these diseases when treatment is pursued,” she concludes. “For many people and their companions—provided that their quality of life is preserved—this extension of life is a valued gift and well worth the effort. “