TACKLING THE BIG C
Many of my clients worry about their pets getting cancer. We don’t have much data on how long pets lived in the past, so it’s hard to say how it has changed over time. What we do know is that, anecdotally, most vets are seeing much greater longevity in their patients. As pets are increasingly living longer, we start to see more problems like cancer.
We have vastly reduced the impact of infectious diseases in our pets. Even heartworm is relatively well controlled in Australia. The rates of traumatic injury in pets has also dropped considerably. This is because most owners acknowledge it’s not OK for their dog to roam the neighbourhood while they are at work. Pets with chronic old age diseases like osteoarthritis, heart or kidney disease live longer as well because we are so much better at treating this and have access to more effective medications. All this adds up to seeing cancer more frequently.
There is no single way to describe cancer and its effect on our pets. It really depends on the type of cancer, where it is and at what point in the disease process we have caught it. The most common type of cancers I see are those that affect the skin or the layers just below the skin.
I think this is because we have a very close relationship with our pets, so most owners will notice new lumps and bumps with touch or can see them develop.
The first step I work through with an owner when we notice a lump that may be cancer is getting an accurate initial diagnosis. This normally means getting a sample of the cells in the lump and examining them. Sometimes this can be done with a small number of cells taken by a fine needle. This works great for certain types of cancer; however, it doesn’t work so well if we need to see how the cells are organised with one another. For this, we need a bigger sample called a biopsy this often needs sedation or even a general anaesthetic.
If your vet tells you that the sample is being sent to the lab for analysis, this means we are using the services of a pathologist. This is a veterinarian with extra training in looking at these samples and making a diagnosis.
Once we have a diagnosis of what type of cancer the lump is, we can use reported data to make the best plan of attack. Often we need to “stage” the cancer — this means we look to see if it has spread and, if it has, where it has spread. Like a lot of the diseases I talk about, the sooner something is discovered, the sooner we can take action on it and the better chance your pet has of recovering.