By Dr. Alison Book, DACVIM Oncology

Here are the top 4 ways to be a proactive participant in your dog’s or cat’s health care and be the best advocate for your pet when on the lookout for cancer.

1. Develop an early detection plan with your veterinarian.
Ask your family veterinarian about developing a routine diagnostic plan to screen for cancer. This may be as simple as annual or biannual physical exams. Depending on breed and age, it could also involve routine blood tests and imaging of the abdomen and chest cavities.

2. Have lumps and bumps tested early.
The best way to monitor for tumors of the skin, connective tissue, muscle, and even external lymph nodes is to pet your dog or cat frequently! This may seem simple, but commonly, tumors are first noticed by groomers, at bath time, during nail trims and routine petting. Get the most out of it by following these guidelines:

  • Be routine. Once every 1-2 months pet your dog or cat with a purpose!
  • Be thorough. Make sure you feel the entire surface of the skin including head, neck, trunk, armpits, limbs, and paws. If your pet will let you, try to look in its mouth, under the ears, and under the tail.
  • Learn what is normal. Start early so you have an idea of what is normal for your pet. Check for symmetry. If you notice something that feels strange or different, compare it to the other side.
  • See your veterinarian. Make sure to schedule regular visits with your veterinarian for an exam. They are trained professionals, and may detect subtle changes earlier.

No matter what a lump looks or feels like, the only way to know if it’s cancer is to have it tested by your family veterinarian or a veterinary oncologist. Often tumors can “feel” like a benign mass and truly be something more concerning. Alternatively, something that might look or feel scary can be benign, but you never know until you check. The process of testing a lump can be as simple as extracting some cells with a small needle (needle “aspirate”) or taking a small piece of tissue (biopsy).

3. Be an advocate for your pet!

When given your options, choose to get a diagnosis before accepting generalized treatments such as antibiotics or steroids which may mask problems and delay appropriate treatment. Getting a diagnosis early usually saves a lot of time, money and frustration. For many, but not all, types of cancer, size matters! In many cases, treating smaller tumors can mean there has been less time for development of cancer cells with the capacity to spread (metastasize), easier and smaller surgeries, more treatment options, and longer survival times.

4. Don’t hold yourself responsible.

Above all, don’t blame yourself if your pet’s cancer is advanced at diagnosis. It is not your fault! Some types of cancer are very aggressive and spread before the primary tumor can be easily detected. Some types of cancers grow and spread very quickly regardless of early detection. Pets are also very good at masking signs of illness because of their evolutionary need to not appear to be weak or an easy target. If this is the case, talk to your veterinary oncologist. There still may be options to extend your pet’s quality of life.

Stay tuned for more information on breed related cancers.