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The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

Feeding Special Needs Pets: Cancer and a Healthy Diet for Pets

Nutrition can play a significant role in the management of dogs and cats with cancer. Pets with cancer could experience weight loss because of decreased intake of food secondary to physical obstruction (e.g., a tumor growing within the oral cavity), or because of decreased appetite secondary to side effects from various treatments.

However, some pets with cancer will lose weight even though they are ingesting adequate amounts of calories per day. "Cancer cachexia" is the specific terminology that applies to weight loss despite adequate nutritional intake seen in patients with tumors. The weight loss comprises both the loss of lean body mass and fat stores. This can lead to problems with healing wounds, immunosuppression, and organ dysfunction.

Surprisingly, studies indicate that many pets with cancer are actually overweight or obese at the time of their diagnosis. It is unclear whether over conditioning contributes to the development of cancer. The nutritional management of these patients can be a challenge. There are many concurrent health risks associated with obesity, including musculoskeletal disease, diabetes, glucose intolerance, and immunosuppression. Therefore, weight loss in these patients would certainly be beneficial for long-term survival. However, balancing planned weight loss in the face of treatment is difficult, and the typical weight-loss plans used for healthy animals are not appropriate for our cancer patients.

The major building blocks of any diet include carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Several different metabolic alterations in these nutrients have been discovered in pets with cancer:

With regard to carbohydrates, tumor cells readily use glucose as a source of energy, and the by-product of this metabolism is lactate. Lactate is a cellular waste product that can be converted back to glucose, but this occurs at the net expense of energy by the animal, contributing to a cachectic state. Dogs with various types of cancers have elevations in blood lactate levels and elevated blood insulin levels, compared to healthy control dogs, and these changes do not always resolve following treatment of the tumors.

In one study, dogs with cancer had alterations in several different blood levels of amino acids, the building blocks for protein synthesis. Like carbohydrates, these alterations in amino acid levels did not normalize following removal of the tumor, suggesting that long-lasting effects in protein metabolism are caused long before treatment is initiated. This could contribute to immune system dysfunction and poor wound healing.

Similarly, another study showed that dogs with cancer have altered lipid profiles that favor the catabolism of fat tissue, which may contribute to the development of cachexia. In one study, a small number of dogs with lymphoma were fed an experimental diet supplemented with enhanced levels of n-3 fatty acids. Results indicated for a specific subset of dogs with lymphoma (Stage III only undergoing treatment with single-agent doxorubicin chemotherapy), dietary supplementation with n-3 fatty acids contributed to longer disease-free intervals and survival times. In another study, dietary supplementation with n-3 fatty acids decreased radiation-induced damage to the skin and oral mucosa in dogs with nasal tumors.

The ideal nutritional requirements for pets with cancer remains unknown, however as indicated above, we know that these animals show signs of alterations in the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, and that changes in the metabolism of these nutrients will often precede any clinical signs of disease and/or cachexia. Therefore, general recommendations for dietary requirements for cancer patients typically consists of a combination of:

  • Small amounts of complex carbohydrates (crude fiber levels > 2.5% of dry matter)
  • Minimal quantities of rapidly absorbed simple sugars
  • High quality but modest amounts of digestible proteins (30-35% of dry matter for dogs and 40-50% of dry matter for cats)
  • High amounts of unsaturated fats (>30% of dry matter)
  • Omega-3/DHA essential fatty acid supplementation — consult with your veterinarian for appropriate dosages

These components can be achieved through various commercially available diets or via home cooked diets that have been properly reviewed by a veterinarian.

It is very important to keep in mind that additional research is necessary before making sweeping generalizations regarding the ideal diet to feed a pet with cancer. The optimal dietary requirements will vary based on individual patients’ needs, their type of cancer, and also the presence and severity of concurrent diseases (e.g., diabetes or hyperthyroidism). Many owners are Internet savvy and a quick Google search using the terms "diet, pets, and cancer," returns thousands of websites containing a tremendous amount of information. Unfortunately, most of it is unproven, over-interpreted, and not evidence based.

One of the most important thing I always stress to pet owners is that it’s never a good idea to implement any diet change and/or addition of supplements or nutraceuticals at the same time their pet is scheduled to be starting chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy, as we want to limit the number of variables that could cause adverse side effects. Once the pet has started on their treatment plan — as long as they are doing well — that is the time to consider any kind of a diet modification. Important considerations to make when thinking about any kind of change would be to serve foods that are highly bioavailable, easily digestible, and highly palatable with a good smell and taste, in order to avoid food aversions and encourage appetite.

I also stress to owners that many of the terms used to describe pet foods on labels and in advertising materials are not legally defined. For example, there are no regulatory meanings for the terms holistic, premium, ultra- or super-premium, gourmet, or human grade. Therefore, it is important to be educated about reading labels and not be swept in by some of the claims made by pet food companies regarding the integrity of their products.

I also make it clear to owners that as a medical oncologist, I am aware of research within the field of veterinary nutrition, but I strongly feel expert opinions are best obtained via consultation with a board certified veterinary nutritionist. I urge them to seek information and advice available through the American College of Veterinary Nutrition.

Dr. Joanne Intile

Image: macka / via Shutterstock

Comments  5

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  • Is It True?
    10/31/2012 11:23am

    It's so important to remember that just because it's on the Internet, that doesn't make it true.

    I'm just as guilty as the next person when it comes to surfing for answers, but it's important to ask the doctor about tidbits found on the Internet and not attempting to treat the critter ourselves.

    I've gotten various responses from the doctor such as "In my experience, that wouldn't help" and "Can't hurt; might help."

  • 10/31/2012 12:42pm

    You write:" I urge them to seek information and advice available through the American College of Veterinary Nutrition." -- Dr. Intile, I've been to that website. There is nothing helpful there. The ACVN is anti-fresh meat, anti-raw diet, pro-wheat, pro-corn, pro-carbohydrates. ACVN cannot even acknowledge that dogs are carnivores.

  • 10/31/2012 02:53pm

    Your comment is untrue. There is a faq section on the website. No where are those comments you claim on the website. The college of veterinary nutritionists attempts to briefly answer common questions. There is way too much unknown to answer every question concisely. There are plenty of nutritionists that kkkwill gladly formulate a raw diet that is BALANCED. That is the reason Dr. Intile recommended the website. To find a nutritionist that you can work with that can create a healthy balanced diet for your pet to ensure they are getting everything they need. Each person is going to have their own opinion but are going to use the best evidence out there based on literature to make recommendations. There is way too much not known abt nutrition in general especially pets. If you don't believe me go do a PubMed search on human nutrition and try to weed through the evidence abt nutrition and association with particular diseases.

  • 10/31/2012 03:41pm

    Excuse me? Untrue, you allege? I disagree. ACVN is anti-raw smack-dab on its website's FAQ page. See the "Are raw pet foods better than canned or kibble foods?" section. http://www.acvn.org/about-us/faq/ The rest of my comments ("The ACVN is anti-fresh meat, anti-raw diet, pro-wheat, pro-corn, pro-carbohydrates. ACVN cannot even acknowledge that dogs are carnivores.") are not from the ACVN website but are from the universal comments of ACVN diplomates. I even know of a formerly holistic vet who went threw the ACVN spin-dry program and came out a diplomate babbling about the merits of corn and meat by-products over fresh meats and vegetables. ACVN is a tool of the pet food industry. I'll stick with diet advice from DVMs who practice holistically.

  • 11/13/2012 04:16am

    Dear Rod,
    You are absolutely right. Now I admit I'm not an MD but I have rescued/treated/cared for cats 35+ years, so I do know SOMETHING about them. Have learned a LOT from not only my mistakes but sadly some from vets. From my experience and heavy internet research (many will dismiss this) I'm convinced the worst diet for cats (probably dogs too) is the typical supermarket/petstore food offering due to major corn/wheat/by-product ingredients. This contributes to diabetes, fatty liver, high blood pressure, obesity & I believe possibly cancer. A no/low grain high protein wet not dry diet is best for cats who are obligate carnivores. Of course other factors are important as well. LOTS of fresh water, play, dental care, combing & regular check ups is essential.

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