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Taking a look at the cancer trilogy

Prevalence, cause and prevention

Editor’s note: First of three parts

One of the most dreaded words you can hear at a vet’s office is “cancer.” Images flash in our mind about incurability, expense, the misery of chemo and radiation and ultimately the dreadful feeling of loss. 

For decades, there has been discussion on whether there is a rise in cancer among dogs and cats. Many pet owners think so. I remember asking one of my professors around the mid ’90s if that was the case. Her answer was, “No, we just got better at detecting it.”

So, what is the truth? Is cancer on the rise or we just getting better at detection? 

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. Cancer is not a reportable disease and there is no consistent effort to keep track of cancer cases in the veterinary field. There have been a few isolated endeavors, like in Alameda County, Calif., from 1963-1966, and the Animal Tumor Registry in Genoa, Italy from 1985-1994. 

From these, and a few other studies, it is not clear if the cancer rate is rising. Even though it is not clear if cancer is on the rise, we know few things about cancer in pets with a good degree of certainty. 

Some breeds are more prone to cancer than others; like boxers with skin cancers, golden retrievers with hemangiosarcoma and lymphoma, rottweilers with osteosarcoma, German shepherds with hemangiosarcoma, etc. So, there is a strong genetic link to cancer in pets.

But genetics are not the only determining factor. For example, it has been shown that exposure to chemicals applied to lawns is associated with an increased risk of bladder cancer in Scottish terriers. 

However, in our little corner of the world, knowing that cancer happens is not enough! We are not here to learn statistics about cancer in pets. All we want to know if there is something that we can do to prevent this. The science behind cancer prevention is borrowed mostly from laboratory animals and human studies. Some cancers such as breast cancer, ovarian cancer or testicular cancer can be largely prevented by spaying or neutering your pet. 

In addition, maybe we can reduce our affinity for cancer-prone pure breeds and consider choosing mixed breed dogs. So many are eagerly waiting to be adopted at the shelters!

In the meantime, you can encourage your veterinarian to report their cancer cases at veterinary cancer registry (vetcancerregistry.com). Also, another important resource if your pet has cancer, is to check if (s)he qualifies for a new drug trial at vetcancersociety.org/pet-owners/clinical-trials. In the next article, we will delve a little deeper into possible ways to reduce cancer in our pets.

Goutam Mukherjee (Dr. G), DVM, MS, PhD., has been a veterinarian for more than 30 years. He owns High Falls Holistic Veterinary Clinic in Crossville. Email questions of general interest to drg.vet@gmail.com.