The Truths About Cancer and Your Pets

Today, right now, 65 million dogs & 32 million cats are fighting cancer in the USA. That’s a lofty number that represents 1 in 4 dogs & 1 in 5 cats living in our nation. Cancer is the leading cause of death in both species, each has approximately 6 million new diagnosed cancer patients and over 1.5 million deaths each year. Sadly, the numbers will continue to grow as more pets enter homes and better methods to screen for cancer are developed. Cancer kills in pets just like it does in humans. How quickly we recognize, diagnose, and treat the cancer is often the difference between living with the disease and finding a road to recovery.

As responsible owners, we all want nothing but long and happy lives for our furry friends. The “C” word is not something we even consider when fixate on a breed, find a pet we can’t live without, and transition them into our loving homes. The truth is cancer doesn’t discriminate, doesn’t care how much you love, or how well you treat, or how hard you might work to assure your pet… cancer wants what any rouge army wants, to increase it’s foothold on the land mass and overcome it’s enemies.

Here are some additional facts about cancer in pets that you may not know…

  • 50% of all dogs over 10 years of age die of cancer

  • 32% of all cats over 10 succumb to the disease

  • Cancer is diagnosed more frequently in dogs than cats, but cancer in cats is more aggressive

  • The most common cancer in cats is Feline Leukemia

  • More dogs are treated for lymphoma (cancer of the lymph nodes) than any other type of cancer

What are the warning signs that my pet might have cancer?

Detection is key to fighting, and winning, the war against cancer. Just like with their owners, the earlier cancer is found the better. An early diagnosis opens up more treatment options and a higher chance that these treatments are for recovery, not comfort and hospice. Yearly visits to your wellness veterinarian is the best start to screen for cancer. Your vet will look for cancer during a physical exam, blood workups, imaging (x-rays, ultrasounds, CT, or MRI), and biopsy of suspect cancer sights on your pet.  In most cases, these are progressive steps (physical leads to blood work that leads to imaging that leads to biopsy). Using these diagnosis methods can help determine the stage, spread, type, and treatment plan for the animal. Regular home checks for any signs of cancer can make detection and treatment even earlier. The warning signs can be subtle and mirror symptoms of other illnesses, so it’s better to be cautious than careless if you find or see something out of the ordinary in your fur kids. Be “that owner” that overthinks or hits the panic button when things don’t seem right. Call your pet’s doctor and let them tell you if what you’re seeing is worth a trip into the office.

Some common warning signs, or symptoms, of cancer in your pets are…

  • Swelling in the abdomen

  • Unexplained bleeding from the mouth, nose, or other body opening

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Lost interest or visible difficulty eating

  • Lumps, bumps, or discoloring of the skin

  • Wounds that just don’t heal

  • Long, sustained bouts of diarrhea or vomiting

  • Sudden changes in eating habits and/or weight/body mass

  • Unexplained pain, visible swelling, hot to the touch areas on the body, and sudden limping or lameness

  • The visible sign of a tumor or mass

As we stated earlier… if any, or multiple, signs from the list above appear on your hairy offspring it’s time to act. That action could be a phone call to talk it over with professional prior to full blown panic, or a scheduling an appointment for full screening with your pets healthcare professional. We’d rather seen 100 “Owners that Cried Wolf” than one person set aside or ignore the unexplained or unusual. Get on the prevention train by looking for signs of cancer when you play with your pet, when they are sleeping and more agreeable to a pat down, as you watch them interact with others or just living in their home environment. ONLY YOU can help recognize, prevent, and help with early diagnosis of cancer in your pets. After all, who spends more time with these love bugs and who knows them better than their parents?

Remission is the Goal

If your dog or cat are diagnosed with cancer, it’s not always a death sentence. However, your vet is likely not going on a mission to CURE cancer in your pet. Mapping out a true cure for cancer would be too physically difficult on an already sick animals body. Instead, your Vet will look for way to achieve remission (a temporary recovery). Sometimes successful remission will lead to the elimination (or a cure) for the cancer. Unlike humans, you can’t communicate to your dog that it will get worse, way worse, before it get better… so the use of aggressive cancer medications that tear down the immune system are not liberally used on pets.

Treatment Options

Here are the three most common treatments that your veterinarian may choose to use on your fur kids.  What option is used is dependent on the vet, the animal, and what is determined they can tolerate. You may see only a single treatment, or treatments used together for a multi-pronged attack against the cancer.

Surgery – a skilled veterinary surgeon physically removes as much of the cancer as it medically possible. This also gives the doctor a first hand look at the cancer, the spread, and the stage the cancer has reached

Radiation Therapy – depending on type, stage, and the impact to the animal, some Vets opt to use a radiation therapy treatment. Radiation is often used in cases where surgery is not an option because of the location of the cancer. These are localized and targeted treatments, like surgery but without the impact of the physical intrusion that surgery brings. If the cancer is more widespread, the doctor can opt to use “half” and “whole” body treatments that work against cancers like lymphoma.

(Radiation comes with a time, cost, and physical toll to the animal. In a true radiation therapy treatment protocol, there are between 15 & 20 treatments that are given in the veterinary office daily, or on a planned schedule. During the 2 hour plus treatment, your pet will be given some form of sedative to keep them calm and still. The actual radiation portion of the treatment is only 5 to 10 minutes time. The remainder of the time is brings the dog in and out of the sedative. Your fur kids feel no direct pain from a radiation treatment. However, they may have after affects of the treatment like fatigue, skin rashes or problems, and physical aches)

Chemotherapy– this word covers a variety of cancer fighting drugs that are used to help limit the spread and slowly reduce the diseases hold on your pet.

(Chemo comes in a few forms Oral (Pill form), intravenous (through an IV drip or shot into the bloodstream), subcutaneously (a “subq” is a shot under the skin), intramuscular (directly into a muscle), or intracavitarily (into a body cavity). Your Vet will determine the match for your pet based on the type of cancer, health of the animal, and the treatment plan developed)

Some side effects that animals who to chemotherapy are fur loss/hair thinning in some dogs/breeds, smaller appetites in combination with vomiting/diarrhea shortly after the session, anemia and increased risk of infection. Studies show that only about 5% of pets show severe level side effects from the chemo treatments.

The Cost of Doing Business with Cancer

Cancer can also kill your wallet. The costs of diagnosis and treatment are often staggering, based on time, medications, labs, scans, and a remission plan. Some NATIONAL averages for cancer treatment are as follows…

Initial Visit for Diagnosis – For that initial visit alone can be over $200. This is for time and the exam. That number does not include blood workup, scans, labs, or testing

Surgery – Cancer surgery starts at $1500 per pet. This high cost is for surgery that is deep into the body and may require some level of reconstruction in the animal. (your price quote may vary depending on the location, depth, and need for additional work)

Radiation Treatments – for that planned schedule of 16 to 20 radiation treatments, your cost could be between $2000 and $6000. Equipment and time, animal size, and amount of treatments will make this number vary

Chemotherapy Treatments – These can range from $200 to $5000 depending on the cancer type, stage, severity and number of treatments needed

Ongoing and After Care Medications – A loose estimate of cost for such things as antibiotics and pain relievers would be in the $30 to $50 range

Pet Insurance – Most pet insurance plans help with these costs. All insurance is a “pay me now or pay me later” gamble. However, with all the cost saving benefits included in a good pet insurance plan, it makes good sense to do your research and plan pet insurance into your monthly budget. It’s easier than absorbing that one big lump sum at the time of diagnosis and treatment. Plans per pet and what is covered will vary in price. Sometimes your homeowners or personal life insurance have addon’s for your fur kids. Do your homework and make an informed choice on pet insurance for your household

Sometimes Pets with Cancer Die

It’s the sad truth, a cancer diagnosis can be the beginning of the end for your best friend. But like everything else we’ve discussed, even a diagnosis of terminal cancer can be managed to assure your pet has a good life right up till the end. Depending on your pets, the stage of the cancer, and the facts about your fur friend living a pain free and comfortable life, your vet may bring up Hospice care as an option.


Much like humans, entering hospice can help both animal and family with the final stages of the illness leading up to the pets passing. The goal of hospice is to keep the animal relaxed, safe, and to limit the pain. Any medications given during this time are to minimize symptoms and keep the animal calm and comfortable. This time is not about treatment, it’s about respect and making the most of remaining time together. A hospice team can advise you on changes that can be made in the home environment to help the pet feel comfortable, as well as prescribe medication for pain and comfort. As painful and shocking as it may be, at some time your veterinarian team might discuss euthanasia as a natural progression in the care of the animal. This time is meant for a peaceful and loving transition for fur child and family

What Can I Personally do to Help my Baby? 

Love Them – first and foremost, a cancer diagnoses means nothing to the pet. They don’t understand that any day is different than the last, expect that they don’t feel well. Your #1 job is to assure they are loved, the same as they are every other day.

Establish Routines – make it easy for your fur buddy by making each day full of comforting and scheduled activities or routines. Don’t rock the boat or make wholesale changes, until changes are mandated by their health. The “same ol’ same ol’” is easy and comfortable for your pet

Install Help Aids – Ramps, orthopedic beds, keeping everything to one floor of the house, easy access to common areas, multiple locations for food and water, special places in your home where you can interact at their level. Help them to help themselves live a more normal life, as normal becomes more difficult to achieve and maintain

Keep Your Medicine Cabinet Stocked – make sure you have a constant supply of their needed medications for pain, nausea and any other treatments needed. Remember, people meds are NOT good for your pets.

Subtle Changes in Diet – Consult with your veterinarian team on what diet is right for your dog. However, don’t take the foods they love or treat they cherish completely off the board unless you are instructed to do so. You may need to coax and help them find the will and desire to eat. Think about how pain and new medications impact your food cravings, or how often you feel like eating

Be Understanding – As the disease progresses, incontinence is common. Mr. “Never Pee Indoors” may simply lose their ability to control their functions. Don’t be angry, work with the situation. Additional pee pads, full time monitoring, and more frequent trips to their favorite bathroom spots may become necessary

Be Honest with Yourself, and with Your Pet – Monitor their quality of life and, if it becomes necessary, do the right thing and help them with a respectful and loving transition. This is the hardest and most selfless thing you can do. Face the facts, your pet is never going to ask you for help ending their life. Keep in mind that they have no idea what is happening to them, except that life is hard and they feel awful. You love them so much, and the most difficult thing you can do is let them go… but it could be the most giving and caring decision you ever make. In the battle of Selfish vs Selfless, make the choice that is right for the animal at that moment. In their own way, they will thank you for helping,  loving and respecting them

In the end, it’s all about one thing… what is best for your fur children. Cancer is awful for everyone, but you are the leader of the pack and their one-and-only commander and chief. They can’t make their own medical choices, can’t talk to you about their symptoms, or tell you when enough is enough for them. The burden of being a parent is difficult and often weighs heavy on your shoulders. Just do the right thing for them, first and foremost

We hope this focus on Cancer in pets has been eye opening and informative. It’s not been fun for us, but it is so important to understand the warning signs, the treatment options, and your responsibility as a loving pet parent to a wonderful fur kid.

Until we blog again, we invite you to read other episodes of our Dog Blog which can be found at the Freddie’s Place web home. There are weeks and volumes of fun, informative and educational topics for you to review. Till next time be safe, be happy, be careful, but above all… be pet friendly! #FreddieSez