Cancer in Pets

Cancer in Pets

The word ‘cancer’ strikes fear into the heart of many pet owners, and unfortunately it’s something we see all too commonly. However, if caught early there are often treatment options available to help slow (if not cure) progression of the disease and ensure that a good quality of life is maintained.

The correct term for cancer is ‘neoplasia’ which means ‘an abnormal growth of new cells’. Tumours can be ‘benign’ which means that the tumour won’t spread to other parts of the body, and does not usually destroy or alter surrounding tissue. An example of this that we see commonly is a ‘lipoma’, which is a benign tumour composed of fatty tissue.

Sometimes however, tumours are ‘malignant’ which means that they can spread (metastasize) to other sites in the body, or invade and destroy tissues. Malignant tumours tend to grow quickly. An example of a malignant tumour is an ‘osteosarcoma’, which is a tumour of bone.

Cancer is something that can affect any part of the body, and hence can cause many different symptoms. For example, cancer affecting the gastrointestinal system can cause loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea and weight loss.

There are a variety of tests used to help detect cancer including blood tests, x-rays and ultrasound scans. Samples can often be taken from a suspected tumour either with a needle or by biopsy to determine what type of cells are present, and to help decide what treatment may be the most appropriate.

Depending on the type and location of neoplasia, surgery may be a suitable treatment, for example to remove a tumour on the skin, and this is often curative. Chemotherapy is also available for animals, just as for people, and the cancer we use this for most commonly is lymphoma. We do not use as high doses as in people as the side effects are not tolerable for animals. Therefore the aim of chemotherapy is usually to induce a period of ‘remission’ (where we see no signs of the cancer) rather than to be curative, although remission can last for many months to years in some cases. Radiotherapy is also available for animals, just as for people, although this is at specialist centres only rather than your local veterinary practice.

Pets do regularly get non-cancerous lumps and bumps, but it’s always worthwhile to have them checked by your vet as there are more options available to treat cancer if caught early.