Local veterinarians are urging humans to be alert about the health of their furry friends, with November being National Pet Cancer Awareness Month.
According to MedVet, cancer affects one in four dogs and one in five cats, and is the No. 1 disease-related cause of death for dogs and cats in the U.S.
Dr. Bobbi Musgrove, of Premier Pet Clinic in Tahlequah, said it’s a lot harder to detect symptoms of cancer in animals than in people.
“Unfortunately, a lot of the things people have as symptoms when they are coming down with cancer are easier to detect because people know those aren’t normal," Musgrove said. “In dogs and cats, they tend to hide those kinds of symptoms, even though they’re very well domesticated. They are still technically prey and they’re not necessarily going to show us when they have symptoms of pain.”
Big changes dogs or cats may make if they are feeling ill include loss of appetite, decreased physical activity, or major behavior changes. Surprisingly, cats may come off as friendlier, and that could indicate an illness.
“A lot of people think that a dog or a cat might vocalize when they’re in pain, but in fact, that’s not generally the case unless it’s an injury-type of pain,” Musgrove said. “They’re not going to cry if they have pain associated with a tumor somewhere.”
Among the types of cancers dogs and cats are most at risk for are skin cancer, lymphosarcoma, spleen, liver, and bone and joint.
“There’s not just one [cancer] that’s the most common, but we do tend to see dogs and cats getting lymphosarcoma, and it can pop up in numerous systems throughout the body,” Musgrove said.
The process for detecting cancer in an animal begins with a physical exam.
“There aren't as straightforward of tests for dogs and cats as there are for people. We don’t have what’s called a 'PET' scan and we don’t have genetic blood work or markers that are specific for certain tumors,” Musgrove said. “It’s all going to depend on if I feel a mass in the abdomen. We take an X-ray and then maybe do an ultrasound, and then we would potentially get a diagnosis based on getting a sample like a biopsy.”
More often than not, surgery will be initially recommended by a veterinarian, with radiation or chemotherapy following.
“For skin cancers, there’s probably a decent percentage in the realm of 60 to 90 percent,” Musgrove said. “For tumors that arise in other places — a lot of them, by the time we diagnose them, have already metastasized or spread. The chance of cure with surgery drops down to probably somewhere in the realm of 30 percent.”
Musgrove said a good step in detecting cancers in its early stages would be to have pets get physical exams annually.
“We recommend an annual physical exam for any pet that’s less than 6 years of age. Generally speaking, we’re not going to see cancers arise at a young age, just like in people,” Musgrove said. “Anything over 6, we do recommend semi-annual exams because then we can be better at staying on top of it.”
Another recommendation Musgrove has for pet owners to get their furry loved ones insured before it’s too late.
“Just like in people, you cannot wait until your vet says they believe your dog or cat has cancer to get insurance. You have to have it in advance; otherwise, it’s a pre-existing condition and it won’t be covered,” Musgrove said.
National Pet Cancer Awareness Month started in 2005, and was created by Nationwide and the Animal Cancer Foundation with a goal of raising money and increasing awareness to fight the leading killer of pets.