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Key Points
  • Work with a breeder who screens for cancer to minimize the genetic risk.
  • Decisions involving spay-neuter and diet maintenance can help limit cancer risk.
  • Avoid environmental risks like cigarette smoke, toxic chemicals, and excessive sunlight.

Cancer” — that dreaded word that nobody wants to hear. But as a leading cause of death in dogs, it’s a reality all too many owners may have to face. Sadly, many cancers have a genetic basis, meaning there’s not much owners can do to avoid it in their dogs. Yet there are certain choices you can make to minimize the risk of your pup developing the dire disease. If you suspect your dog shows signs of cancer, seek professional veterinary advice immediately. However, there are certain choices you can make to help your dog avoid a cancer diagnosis.

Breeder Selection and Spay-Neuter

It’s a sad fact that certain beloved breeds, such as Golden Retrievers and Boxers, are particularly prone to certain kinds of cancer. Responsible breeders of these dogs screen their breeding stock for common cancers. If you’re acquiring a cancer-prone breed, there are ways to help avoid a heartbreaking diagnosis down the line. Work with a responsible, registered breeder who has paid attention to cancer in their lineage and worked to exclude it. A good rule of thumb for welcoming any dog into your life is to verify that the breeder has performed health testing for the breed’s commonly associated conditions.

Once your new puppy has settled in, another decision is whether or not to spay or neuter. And if so, when? Recent research by Dr. Benjamin Hart of the University of California, Davis, sponsored by the AKC Canine Health Foundation (CHF), indicates that spaying or neutering a puppy before sexual maturity can increase the risk of developing certain cancers. For instance, Dr. Hart’s 2013 paper found that spay-neuter could increase Golden Retrievers’ likelihood of developing certain cancers by up to three or four times.

However, it’s not as simple as just avoiding spay-neuter, or putting it off until your dog has reached sexual maturity. The procedure’s effects vary widely between the sexes and from breed to breed.

“It’s hard to predict which ones will and which ones do not have an increase in cancers with early spay-neuter,” Dr. Hart says.

So hard to predict, in fact, that it’s impossible to make a blanket recommendation. Instead, Dr. Hart and the AKC CHF recommend an informed conversation with your veterinarian about the specific risks and benefits of spay-neuter for your dog, which takes into account the latest canine health research.

Nutrition Tips To Help Prevent Cancer

On a day-to-day level, the most important thing you can do to help keep your dog fit, healthy, and cancer-free for as long as possible is to manage their weight.

“There’s some potential correlation between being overweight and certain types of cancers in dogs,” board-certified veterinary nutritionist Lisa Weeth says. “Some benign types of tumors that dogs get, like lipomas, can occur more frequently in dogs that are overweight.”

Earlier research, she adds, suggested that overweight dogs, especially female dogs, may be at an increased risk for developing mammary tumors. Additionally, obesity can increase the risk of joint disease and complicate things like diabetes and heart disease.

Dr. Weeth points out that, as in humans, cancer is more common in older dogs than younger ones. For older dogs, certain dietary tweaks may improve their chances of remaining cancer-free. Antioxidants, like EPA and DHA (found in fish oils), and medium-chain triglycerides, have been found to improve cognitive function by helping to prevent damage to brain cells. They might also help prevent damage to other cells in the body. Since cancer is caused by damaged cells replicating unchecked, supplementing with these items may help protect against the development of some of the DNA damage that can lead to cancer. Dr. Weeth stresses that, as yet, this remains a theoretical benefit. But, she argues, if it’s not harmful and may be helpful, what do we have to lose?

Studies show that antioxidant regimes don’t have the same impact on younger dogs as in older ones. So, from an efficacy perspective, this supplementation is best kept for the more mature canine.

Healthy Lifestyle Choices

There’s also evidence that some environmental factors are associated with higher cancer rates in dogs. Some of these reflect similar information as what we know about cancer risks in humans.

For instance, did you know that living in a smoking household is bad for your pets as well as humans? A study from Colorado State University has shown that second-hand smoke is linked to an increased risk of nasal cancer in dogs, especially long-nosed dogs like Labrador Retrievers, Collies, and Dachshunds. Meanwhile, short-nosed dogs like Pugs, Bulldogs, and Shih Tzus are more likely to develop lung cancer from living with a smoker. Lastly, all dogs are at risk of respiratory disease from second-hand smoke.

Sunlight is also a risk factor, especially if you have a dog with light pigmentation. Keep such dogs out of the sun during the hottest hours of the day and use sunscreen when sunlight is unavoidable. Make sure to avoid zinc oxide, which is toxic to dogs if ingested.

Woman kissing a happy Siberian Husky

The Veterinary Cancer Society also reports that pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides can all increase the risk of various kinds of cancer in dogs. Of note, 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, a widely used herbicide, has been linked to both malignant lymphoma and transitional cell cancer in dogs. Owners are advised to limit their dog’s exposure to this type of herbicide. Studies have also found that paints, solvents, and insecticides could be linked to higher rates of canine cancer. So just as you would avoid chemical nasties, it’s a good idea to keep your dog away from them too.

In conclusion, cancer is, unfortunately, the type of disease that can strike at any time despite our best efforts. Taking preventative measures, however, is one way we can give our dogs the best possible chance of avoiding cancer, and living out long, healthy, and happy lives.