Cancer is the leading cause of death in senior cats and dogs, but is notoriously hard to detect in pets, because signs can be nonspecific and subtle. Our Dove Mountain Veterinary team wants to help by explaining warning signs that may indicate your pet is affected and information about pet cancer treatment.

Pet cancer warning signs

Pets are excellent at hiding illness and routine blood work often cannot detect cancer, which can make cancer diagnosis difficult. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the Veterinary Cancer Society (VCS), the following signs may indicate your pet has cancer:

  • Abnormal swellings — If you notice a new lump or bump on your pet, the mass should be biopsied to determine if it is malignant or benign. Examine your pet regularly, so you notice abnormal swellings as soon as they appear.
  • Non-healing wounds — Wounds that don’t heal despite appropriate treatment should be investigated.
  • Weight loss — Unexplained weight loss, weight loss associated with a decline in your pet’s appetite, or weight loss despite your pet maintaining their normal appetite can indicate cancer.
  • Loss of appetite — If your pet stops eating or becomes less enthusiastic about meal times, cancer may be responsible.
  • Foul odor — Tumors in the mouth, nose, or anus can have an offensive odor, because bacteria typically invade the masses.
  • Bleeding or discharge — Chronic bleeding or discharge anywhere on the body, including the nostrils, mouth, and anus, should be investigated. This includes chronic vomiting and diarrhea.
  • Difficulty eating or swallowing — If your pet is enthusiastic about eating, but seems to have difficult chewing or swallowing, they could have a cancerous lesion in their mouth or putting pressure on their esophagus.
  • Exercise intolerance — If your normally active pet is reluctant to exercise or has noticeably decreased stamina, cancer may be the culprit.
  • Mobility problems — Limping and stiffness are most likely caused by arthritis, but may also be caused by nerve, muscle, or bone cancer. 
  • Difficulty breathing, urinating, or defecating — Seek immediate veterinary care if your pet is wheezing or straining to urinate or defecate.

Pet cancer diagnosis

If clinical signs indicate your pet has cancer, confirming the diagnosis includes:

  • Physical examination — Our veterinary team will perform a thorough physical examination, evaluating them from head to toe.
  • Blood tests — We will perform a complete blood count and biochemistry profile to assess your pet’s organ function and rule out other conditions.
  • X-rays — Our veterinary team may recommend X-rays to look for involvement throughout your pet’s body.
  • Ultrasound — We may conduct an ultrasound to determine the tumor position and size.
  • Fine needle aspirate — Our veterinary team will take a sample from your pet’s tumor for evaluation under a microscope.
  • Biopsy — In some cases, we may evaluate a section of your pet’s tumor.

Pet cancer treatment

If your pet has cancer, four main treatment options are available, including:

  • Surgery — When possible, the cancerous tumor is surgically removed, but this approach is not the best option for every cancer or patient. Some tumors are too large or their location makes removal impossible, and some have microscopic fingers that make removing the entire tumor impossible, resulting in recurrence. 
  • Radiation — This treatment, which uses high-dose ionizing radiation to damage the cancer’s DNA and kill the cells, is the most effective option for tumors with rapidly dividing cells. Radiation can also be used to help shrink a tumor before surgery, or after surgery to limit tumor regrowth and recurrence.
  • Chemotherapy — This therapy can kill or slow cancer cell growth using drugs typically developed from natural sources, such as plants or bacteria, that can be administered orally or intravenously. Chemotherapy can be used alone, or in conjunction with surgery.
  • Immunotherapy — New and evolving treatments are focusing on boosting your pet’s immune system to help fight the cancer. These therapies typically work best when combined with other treatment methods. 

Caring for your pet with cancer

After a surgical procedure to remove a cancerous tumor, your pet will need rest to heal. Radiation therapy side effects are typically mild and temporary, and include irritation or pain at the treatment site. Chemotherapy side effects are much milder in pets than people, and the majority of pets have minimal or no issues. Other steps you should take if your pet has cancer include:

  • Educate yourself about your pet’s cancer — Pets can be affected by many cancer types that behave differently. Some can spread to other body areas (i.e., metastasize), while some are only locally invasive. Educate yourself on your pet’s particular cancer, so you can make informed decisions about their treatment.
  • Ask questions — If you don’t understand anything about your pet’s cancer diagnosis or treatment, ask for clarification. You need to understand every aspect of your pet’s condition, and our veterinary team will be happy to discuss your concerns. 
  • Consider your pet’s quality of life — The goal for any treatment for your pet is to alleviate pain and discomfort and extend their life, as long as their quality of life (QOL) can be preserved. Monitor your pet closely to ensure their QOL is not compromised.

Cancer is a worrisome diagnosis, and detecting the condition in the early stages provides the best prognosis for your pet. If your pet is exhibiting concerning signs, contact our American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA)-accredited team at Dove Mountain Veterinary, so we can determine if cancer is to blame and formulate a treatment plan, if necessary, as soon as possible.