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 cancer, so getting an exact diagnosis is vital to determine the next steps. The best chance for a successful cancer treatment though is early detection. So what can pet owners do to help find a pet’s cancer? Start with these five things:
1. Have All Masses SampledSometimes 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 cancerous, but 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:
- Your family veterinarian will do a fine needle aspirate. A small needle (typically the size used for drawing blood) is inserted into the mass to obtain some cells.
- 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.
- 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.
2. Maintain Regular Veterinary AppointmentsAn 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.
3. Approve Routine LabworkLabwork 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
4. Approve Recommended Routine ImagingImaging 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.
5. Ask About New Screening TestsIn 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.
- 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.