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Early Detection of Cancer in Dogs and Cats: 5 Things Pet Owners Can Do

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Cancer affects approximately six million pets every year. This disease is caused by uncontrolled cell growth, and since there are many distinct types of cells in the body, there are many different types of cancer. The behavior of the cancer in the body, recommended treatments, and prognosis all depend on the type of cancerso getting an exact diagnosis is vital to determine the next steps. The best chance for a successful cancer treatment though is early detectionSo what can pet owners do to help find a pet’s cancer? Start with these five things: 

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1. Have All Masses Sampled 

Sometimes cancer can show up as a lump or bump that owners might notice at home – on a pet’s skin, in the mouth, or even on the toes. These masses can be benign or cancerousbut there’s only one way to know! Your family veterinarian must test them. While certain types of tumors may look similar, no veterinarian (not even a board-certified veterinary oncologist) can tell if a mass is cancerous just by feeling it. If you or your family veterinarian find any new masses on your pet, they should always be sampled.

How a Mass is Tested:
  1. Your family veterinarian will do a fine needle aspirateA small needle (typically the size used for drawing blood) is inserted into the mass to obtain some cells.
  2. That sample is put onto a microscope slide so your family vet can look at them under a microscope. If that examination leads your vet to think the mass could be cancerous, he or she may recommend sending the sample to a board-certified veterinary pathologist for review.
  3. If the small sample of cells is not enough to provide a firm diagnosis, a biopsy may be recommended. Biopsies are typically done under heavy sedation or general anesthesia. A small piece of the mass is removed and sent to a pathologist.  

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2. Maintain Regular Veterinary Appointments  

An especially important part of early cancer detection in your pet is regular examinations with your family veterinarian. There are several parts of a veterinary exam that can reveal problems before a pet shows any symptoms at home, including lymph node and abdominal palpation, the unpleasant rectal exam, and a thorough oral exam. Annual exams are usually recommended for younger, healthy pets while older pets should be seen every six months or even more frequently if recommended by your family veterinarian.  

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3. Approve Routine Labwork 

Labwork can also help detect cancer early and should be done regularly for all middle-aged and senior pets. Routine labwork for most pets typically includes: 

  • A complete blood count to measure the number of the different types of blood cells 
  • A serum chemistry panel to measure organ function and electrolytes 
  • Urinalysis to evaluate kidney function 
  • Thyroid hormone levels 

While the results of these tests are unlikely to actually diagnose a specific type of cancer, they can tell your family veterinarian if there may be an internal problem brewing before your pet shows any symptoms. Based on any abnormalities in the results, your family veterinarian may recommend additional lab tests or imaging such as x-rays or ultrasounds. Those additional tests can then localize the problem and help determine if it is caused by a type of cancer.  

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4. Approve Recommended Routine Imaging 

Imaging tests in humans are frequently done as screening tests for cancer (such as mammograms to screen for breast cancer). Similarly, imaging tests in animals such as chest x-rays and abdominal ultrasounds may help detect internal cancers before symptoms develop or abnormalities show up on labwork. Unfortunately, contrary to human medicine, there is no standard recommendation for how frequently these screening tests should be performed in an otherwise healthy pet. For older pets or breeds at high-risk for cancer (such as Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, Boxers, and Labrador Retrievers), annual or bi-annual imaging may be recommended. If you are considering imaging tests for your pet, talk to your family veterinarian to determine how frequently they should be performed 

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5. Ask About New Screening Tests 

In recent years, some promising new screening tests have been released: 

  • CADET® BRAF 
    • This test can help diagnose transitional cell carcinoma (TCC), the most common type of bladder cancer in dogs. If your family veterinarian is suspicious your dog may have TCC or if your dog is a high-risk breed, your vet may recommend submitting a sample of your dog’s urine for this test. The cells in the urine are then evaluated for the BRAF mutation, which is commonly seen in TCC.  
  • Nu-Q  
    • This is a screening blood test that has helped detect two of the most common cancers in dogs: lymphoma and hemangiosarcoma. These cancers are typically only diagnosed when pets develop external abnormalities or become ill. This test can help detect these cancers early in older pets or in high-risk breeds as part of a wellness check. It can also be used to streamline the diagnostic process if there is a high suspicion of one of these cancers 

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While no pet owner wants to hear the word “cancer,” finding a pet’s cancer early often leads to a longer lifespan in your pet and can also mean less invasive (and less expensive!) treatment options. If you have any questions or concerns about your pet’s health, talk to your family veterinarian. He or she can help you determine the best plan for your pet. If your family veterinarian does diagnose your pet with cancer, you may want to consider asking for a referral to a board-certified veterinary oncologist to help manage and treat your pet’s cancer.  

Click here to learn more about Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota’s Oncology Service, headed by Dr. Keller, a board-certified veterinary oncologist. 


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