“Your dog has cancer” is something that no one wants to hear, but as dogs are living longer than ever, cancer is something that many pet owners will face. According to the Animal Cancer Foundation, it’s estimated that of the 65 million dogs that live in the United States, approximately 6 million new cancer diagnoses are made each year. However, cancer doesn’t always mean a death sentence for your dog.
“There are types of cancer in dogs that are very treatable,” says Dr. Diane Brown, DVM, Ph.D., Dipl. ACVP, and Chief Executive Officer and Chief Scientific Officer for the AKC Canine Health Foundation. “I think about it as a spectrum, from those that are less aggressive and curable to those that are highly aggressive and don’t have a cure or even have a good treatment option. Our foundation and profession put a lot of resources towards cancer research because the need really is great, especially for those that we have not yet found a way to prevent or successfully treat.”
Common Types of Cancer in Dogs
Just as in humans, dogs can develop many types of cancer. The most common ones reported in dogs include:
The problem with tracking cancer in dogs is that, unlike with humans, there is no singular tracking method or system. Every veterinary office uses its own system (if they have anything at all). There has been documentation of certain cancers in certain breeds (such as histiocytic sarcoma, an aggressive and relatively rare cancer that occurs in Bernese Mountain Dogs and other breeds). But, for the most part, there are many factors that can influence when and if a dog gets cancer, such as environment, age, and if or when a dog was spayed or neutered.
Dr. Brown also notes that “cancer is reported in mixed-breed dogs at the same or higher prevalence as in purebred dogs.”
The Importance of an Accurate Diagnosis
As the cancer research field has grown for humans, there have been great improvements in the realm of animal cancer as well, allowing for more accurate diagnoses and better treatments for dogs.
Dr. Brown explains that, as a result, there’s a lot more science now that goes into the correct diagnosis. “Making that correct diagnosis from the start will lead you to a more accurate prognosis and help you to choose which treatment path to go down. All of this new research is also informative and important in getting the correct diagnosis of the type of cancer you’re dealing with.”
After receiving an accurate diagnosis, it’s important to also ask your veterinarian or veterinary oncologist if the cancer has spread. Tumors, for example, can often be removed, but the cancer cells may spread to other parts of the body, which could affect the type of treatment you seek for your dog.
Treatment Options For Cancer in Dogs
After getting a diagnosis, your veterinarian may refer you to a veterinary oncologist to determine the next steps. They will talk you through the various options, depending on the type of cancer your dog has.
“Options may include surgical treatment, combination therapy of surgery and chemotherapy, radiation therapy, chemotherapy alone, and immunotherapy,” says Dr. Brown. “Immunotherapy includes cancer vaccines — there’s a cancer vaccine for melanoma available for dogs now. There is also work on a number of other immunotherapy modalities where you’re basically taking the dog’s own immune cells to kill its own cancer cells.”
Depending on the type of chemotherapy, the dog might receive a pill, injection, or IV. Many of these appointments are similar to regular veterinary experiences. On the other hand, radiation therapy requires anesthesia to ensure the accuracy and positioning of the treatment. Dr. Brown also stresses the importance of considering pain management, quality of life, post-op care if surgery is involved, and nutritional therapies.
And then there is the cost. While some pet owners will spend whatever it takes, the truth is not everyone can afford thousands of dollars of treatment out-of-pocket. The cost of chemotherapy, for example, can range from $3,000 to more than $10,000. So even though this is an emotional time, you will want to consider the issue from all angles.
Side Effects of Cancer Treatment in Dogs
Generally speaking, animals tolerate therapies like chemotherapy better than humans. Many dogs don’t experience a lot of side effects, but some can have vomiting or diarrhea. Dogs don’t generally lose their hair like humans but can get low blood cell counts and/or a weakened immune system that leaves them susceptible to other diseases.
Dr. Brown points out another way that cancer is different for dogs. “I think one of the big differences in dogs is that they don’t have the anticipation, so they don’t know what to expect. You can see them bouncing in and bouncing out as if they didn’t just receive chemotherapy.”
The Future of Canine Cancer Research
Canine cancer has been a huge part of the AKC Canine Health Foundation (CHF) research portfolio for 24 years. The organization has funded more than $12 million in canine cancer research through 207 grants, which has led to several key breakthroughs in the field.
“For our purposes, we fund research that is humane health research,” explains Dr. Brown. “Our primary goal is that research needs to have an outcome that will benefit dogs. If it can benefit people, too, that’s even better. But our primary concern really is the dog and what we can learn that’s going to help them.”
What’s more, the CHF doesn’t fund the use of laboratory animals in research work. “It’s all naturally occurring disease or disease that is happening on the laboratory benchtop,” says Dr. Brown. “Then the research will hopefully translate into a preventative, treatment, or cure for a condition or disease in the dog. We want vets and owners to take this information and apply it directly to the health and well-being of the dog.”