Each year, approximately six million new cancer diagnoses are made in dogs, according to the National Cancer Institute. It’s estimated that one in four dogs will develop cancer in their lifetime. Cancer is also the leading cause of death in dogs who are past middle age.
“Although we have little control over some of the risk factors for cancer in dogs, such as genetic predispositions or the weakened immune systems of older dogs, there are steps dog owners can take to reduce the chance their canine companions will develop certain types of cancer,” says Dr. Jerry Klein, Chief Veterinary Officer for the AKC.
Fight Canine Cancer With Fitness
We all want to give our dogs the best lives possible. One way to minimize canine cancer risks is to keep your dog fit and healthy.
Good Nutrition for Dogs
There’s no magic recipe to prevent cancer, but a well-balanced diet provides your dog with all their nutritional requirements and contributes to your pet’s ability to fight cancer and other diseases. Ask your veterinarian to suggest a diet that meets your dog’s nutritional needs.
Exercise and Weight Management
Proper exercise and diet are critical components to helping your dog maintain a healthy weight. Obesity in dogs is a growing problem and can lead to many health issues, including cancer. Significantly overweight dogs are more likely to develop bladder and mammary cancer. Some benign types of tumors, such as lipomas, also occur more frequently in dogs that are overweight; in rare cases, these tumors can become malignant (liposarcoma).
The Merck Veterinary Manual recommends a routine and thorough physical examination by a veterinarian. Even when cancer can’t be prevented, early detection and treatment offer the best chance for your dog to survive and return to a normal quality of life.
At a minimum, every dog should be examined by a veterinarian once a year. The frequency of recommended vet visits depends, in part, on your pet’s age. For example, older dogs may need more frequent examinations, often every six months.
When a veterinarian examines your dog’s teeth, they will search the dog’s mouth for tumors. The most common types of oral cancer are melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and fibrosarcoma. If a tumor is caught early (when it can be completely removed), surgery may restore the dog’s health.
Mammary cancer in female dogs and testicular cancer in male dogs are some of the most common canine cancers. Sterilization has proven to reduce the risk in some cases, though other studies suggest that sterilization can also be associated with an increased risk of death from cancer. When a dog is spayed or neutered before reaching full maturity, studies show that there can be a risk of developing cancers like lymphosarcoma and hemangiosarcoma.
When deciding when or whether to spay or neuter your dog, talk with your veterinarian. Experts also recommend taking into account breed predispositions for certain cancers and orthopedic issues as you decide what’s best for your dog and your individual situation.
Understand Your Dog’s Heritage
Certain cancers are more common in certain dog breeds. It’s a good idea to research any health issues associated with your dog’s breed, familiarize yourself with the symptoms, and be sure your veterinarian is aware of these risks. Choosing a breeder who carefully plans their litters is an important first step in setting your dog’s lifelong health up for success.
Tune In to Your Dog
No one knows your dog better than you do, so you are likely to be the first to notice any changes in their behavior. “Stay attuned to any changes in your dog’s appetite, elimination, or body, as well as modifications in personality, mood, or level of activity, and consult with your veterinarian,” says Dr. Klein.
How to Reduce Canine Cancer Risk in Your Environment
In addition to keeping your pet fit and healthy, other simple lifestyle or environmental changes can help with minimizing cancer risk. Research has shown that some chemicals or environmental hazards can be associated with cancer in people and dogs alike.
Household Cleaners and Paints
In her research, Dr. Lauren Trepanier at the University of Wisconsin, Madison found that canine bladder cancer and canine lymphoma are associated with household use of insecticides and herbicides. Another study revealed that living in industrial areas and owner use of chemicals (paints and solvents) were significantly associated with lymphoma in dogs. Safe storage of all chemicals and household products and paints is critical to avoid exposing your dog to these risks.
Both people and dogs are at risk of developing cancer after asbestos exposure. If you’re removing asbestos from your home, be sure to keep your dog away from the area during the process.
Pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides can increase the risk of various kinds of cancer in dogs. One study found that lymphoma in animals directly correlated with some lawn care chemicals: specifically, products that included 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid. Some studies have linked that chemical to bladder cancer (though that connection has been debated in recent research). If your dog spends lots of time in your yard, avoid using these chemicals, choose non-toxic and pet-safe lawn alternatives, and keep your dog away from yards that do use them.
Exposure to ultraviolet radiation and too much sunlight can cause canine skin cancer, such as squamous cell carcinoma, malignant melanomas, and hemangioma. Dogs with light or white coats are the most vulnerable, as are the areas of a dog’s body with little hair, such as the abdomen. You can significantly reduce this risk by keeping your dog indoors or providing your dog with shaded areas at times when the sun is strongest during the summer months, as well as using dog-safe sunscreen.
Exposure to secondhand smoke can lead to a higher incidence of nasal cancer in long-nosed dogs (like Collies and Retrievers), and lung cancer in dogs with short- and medium-length noses. Eliminating any cigarette smoke from your home will reduce your pet’s risk of suffering from these types of cancer.
Cancer Risk Reduction Is Up to Dog Owners
Even dogs who live out their expected lifespans don’t live long enough for the owners who love them. Responsible dog owners do their best to protect their best pals from cancer whenever they can.