November is pet cancer awareness month. There is no easy way to talk about cancer, but as a pet owner, it is important to be aware of the warning signs. Just as in humans, cancer can develop suddenly in dogs and cats; and an unexpected diagnosis can be devastating to pet owners. Early recognition is a key step to intervening and improving the outcomes for our companion animals.

There are many types of cancer for cats and dogs, but it is not fully understood what may cause the disease. Certain factors including genetics, exposure to environmental toxins (especially cigarette smoke, sun exposure) assorted viruses and infections, and obesity have been linked to higher cancer rates. Older pets, as well as certain breeds like German Shepherds, Rottweilers and Golden Retrievers, are also more susceptible to cancer. The most common life-threatening cancers are hemangiosarcoma, lymphoma, mast cell tumors, and soft tissue sarcomas.

Every type of cancer can cause slightly different symptoms, but monitoring for these general signs may bring a potential problem to your attention sooner:

  • Sudden weight loss
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Lumps on or under the skin
  • Loss of appetite
  • Repeat vomiting and/or diarrhea
  • Breathing problems (frequent cough, etc.)
  • Lethargy

In older pets (dogs and cats older than 7 years old), physical examinations every 6 months and annual blood work are critical to maintaining your pet’s health. These checkups/tests allow a veterinarian to screen for tumors and/or organ dysfunction, which can aid in catching cancer early. With early detection, some cancers can be surgically removed or treated with advanced therapeutics like chemotherapy and radiation. This can result in more quality time with your beloved pet. However, if the cancer goes unnoticed, it can spread to other organs (metastasis) which greatly limits treatment options and lifespan of the pet.

Since our pets are unable to communicate how they are feeling, it is the responsibility of the owner to stay vigilant with senior pets and take them for their annual veterinary checkups. Screening tests like physical exams, bloodwork and even abdominal ultrasounds can help us stay on top of any life-threatening abnormalities in our pets.