Regardless of your pet’s age, learn the signs of cancer to keep your pet as healthy as possible for as long as possible; and be proactive by looking for early symptoms that could indicate a medical condition needing veterinary attention. For your part, feed your pets a wholesome diet, exercise them routinely, schedule regular veterinary checkups and learn how to spot signs of possible cancer (discussed below).
Swellings that persist or continue to grow
Even if you find a very tiny lump or bump, cancer can grow very quickly. Any new lumps or bumps should not be ignored. If the mass turns out to be benign, that’s great! If it is cancerous, then at least we know what is going on and can discuss what to do next for your pet.
If you smell a sudden foul odor coming from the mouth, skin, nose or rectal area, it may be due to a tumor. Infections and cancer must be diagnosed and treated appropriately to make sure your pet feels better as soon as possible.
Lesions or sores that do not heal
Sometimes skin wounds that don’t seem to heal despite antibiotics, anti-inflammatories or ointments applied locally can be cancerous. If your pet has a sore that isn’t healing, more tests need to be performed to rule out cancer.
Unexplained weight loss and loss of appetite
Unless your pet is on a diet, his or her weight should be steady. Sudden weight loss while maintaining a normal appetite is concerning, and is commonly caused by a tumor. One of the first things a pet will do when not feeling well is stop eating. If you notice your cat or dog losing weight, either rapidly or slowly, or is not eating regularly, please make an appointment with your vet.
Difficulty eating or swallowing
Sores, lumps, a strange odor, bleeding, or a change in gum color can be a sign of oral cancer, particularly in older dogs. Furthermore, a lump in the neck could be putting pressure on the esophagus making it hard for your pet to swallow. Many oral tumors are not detected until a really advanced stage (i.e. spread to the lymph nodes and lungs) so it’s a good idea to watch your pet when he/she eats, yawns, barks/meows (or hisses!), and see a vet if you notice something out of the ordinary.
Nosebleeds or abnormal discharge
Nosebleeds and persistent nasal discharge in cats and dogs are never normal. In older pets, a nosebleed is quite worrisome. Although bleeding from the nose does not necessarily mean cancer, it raises concern for a possible tumor and should be evaluated promptly.
A sudden shift in energy, leading to signs of lethargy or difficulty exercising is concerning. Tumors around the heart or metastatic cancer can cause these signs.
Coughing or changes in breathing
In addition to exercise intolerance, breathing changes (i.e. changes in respiratory rate or effort) could be due to a mass putting pressure on the respiratory system (in the airways or lungs). Non-invasive chest x-rays can be performed in most cases to evaluate for underlying lung cancer.
Sudden or persistent lameness or pain
Lameness can be caused by so many different things, however, bone cancer can cause pain and lameness, along with swelling of the affected leg. If your pet is lame or in pain, an examination, along with x-rays, can often provide insight and allow detection of an underlying tumor.
Difficulty urinating or defecating
Constantly begging to go out to go to the bathroom, having accidents in the house, difficulty peeing/pooping, or blood in the urine or stool can be associated with cancer affecting the urinary system (kidneys, bladder or urethra) or digestive system (rectum or anus). Persistent diarrhea and straining to poop can also be symptoms of illness.
Many of the cancers we see today can now be treated with surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Lots of the skin tumors, mast cell tumors, breast cancer, and soft tissue sarcoma cases can be removed with surgery, rendering the pet cancer-free. Even in situations where a cancer has advanced to the lymph nodes, there remain several options that can help in prolonging both the length and quality of life. But early detection is paramount! Stay informed, keep an eye on your pet, and see your family veterinarian regularly to keep your pet happy and healthy!
If you see any of these symptoms in your pets, contact your veterinarian for an appointment. For more information, you can also visit The Veterinary Cancer Society website.