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Written by leading veterinarians to provide you with the information you need to care for your pets.

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.

Top Five Holistic Pet Cancer Prevention Tips

Cancer is a disease that we veterinarians are diagnosing more frequently in pets. According to the Morris Animal Foundation, “1 in 2 dogs will develop cancer and 1 in 4 dogs will die of the disease.”

As there is no guarantee for a cure, we should strive to prevent our pets from developing cancer in the first place. Yet, as cancer is a complicated disease of the immune system involving excessive growth of cells that have altered DNA, the origins of the disease never have a singular or finite cause. Therefore, there is no absolute guarantee that our best efforts to prevent cancer from happening will guarantee a desired outcome (i.e., having a pet never develop cancer).

May is Pet Cancer Awareness Month, so I want to emphasize the concept that making healthy lifestyle choices can provide a better state of overall wellness and potentially reduce the likelihood that cancer may occur. Although there is no fail proof cancer preventive tactic, here are my top five tips to help keep your pet cancer free.

1. Physical Examination — Take a DIY approach paired with your veterinarian’s evaluation

Owners can take a proactive, holistic approach to their pets’ health by placing their hands on their canine or feline companions on a daily basis to perform a DIY (Do It Yourself) version of a physical exam. Frequent, tactile examination of a pet’s body permits pet owners to detect areas of discomfort, heat or swelling, skin lesions or masses, or other abnormalities that can then be brought to a veterinarian’s attention.

All pets should have a physical examination by a veterinarian at least every 12 months (more frequently for juvenile, geriatric, and sick pets). During the exam, all organ systems can be evaluated through the veterinarian’s scrutinizing perspective. The eyes, ears, nose, mouth, heart, lungs, digestive tract, lymph nodes, skin, neurologic function, and urogenital (urinary and reproductive parts) and musculoskeletal systems must operate normally to achieve whole body health. Body weight and temperature should also be assessed during teach visit.

2. Vaccinations — To vaccinate or not to vaccinate? That is the question

Have you considered the necessity of updating a vaccination just because the recommended time to booster has arrived? Will getting all of your pet’s vaccinations “up to date” really make your pet healthier? Is your pet even healthy enough to be vaccinated? You should be asking yourself and your veterinarian all these questions before your pet is “given its shot.”

As an individual and public health preventive tactic, humans vaccinate pets against certain organisms that could cause severe illness or death. Companion canines and felines should be vaccinated under state-mandated guidelines and the discretion of the attending veterinarian.

Vaccinations should only be given to a pet that is in the utmost state of health. Animals showing any signs of illness (lethargy, decreased appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, etc.) or having known diseases (cancer, immune mediated disease, etc.) that could be worsened by a vaccine-induced immune system response should not be vaccinated; at least at that time.

Blood testing for antibodies (immune system proteins involved in managing infectious organisms that attempt to enter the body) can determine if the patient already has mounted an adequate immune response from a previous vaccination.

3. Focus on whole food instead of processed food

The foods our pets eat and the liquids they drink are the building blocks of body tissues and the foundation of overall health. Without consuming appropriate quantities of protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and water, organs ultimately suffer and ailments emerge.

Before feeding your pet a particular commercially available food or treat, look closely at the ingredients and ask yourself if you would consume it. Many people who feed their pets conventional dry or canned foods may resist the idea of eating the types of diets made for our canine or feline companions. I completely understand this perspective, as most pet foods are made with feed-grade ingredients. (See Are You Poisoning Your Companion Animal by Feeding 'Feed-Grade' Foods?)

Why should we feed our pets nutrients that we would not eat ourselves? Do they deserve to eat less than the highest quality meats, vegetables, and grains? When we feed our pets food that has been significantly modified from the way nature intended and that potentially contains ingredients that are poorer quality and have higher allowable levels of toxins (some of which are carcinogenic, like mycotoxin) than the foods we eat, we are doing a disservice to our pets’ health.

Instead of processed pet foods, consider a commercially available or home prepared diet formulated from whole-food based ingredients.Home prepared recipes that are balanced and complete can be scientifically formulated via the UC Davis Veterinary Medicine Nutrition Support Service or companies like BalanceIT.

4. Reduce Calories and Keep Body Condition Slim

In ever growing numbers, pets show the significant health consequences of being overfed by their caretakers. Diseases of the heart, kidney, liver, pancreas (diabetes), musculoskeletal (arthritis, disk disease) system, urinary tract, skin, and cancer are all associated with being overweight or obese.

The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) estimates that 54 percent of pets in the United States are overweight or obese (an astounding 89 million cats and dogs). Excess weight increases the body’s overall level of inflammation, which promotes cancer cell growth. Being overweight or obese has a well documented correlation with canine bladder and mammary cancer.

Always feed your pet a quantity at the lower end (or less) of the recommended guidelines according to the food’s manufacturer (or home prepared recipe). Minimize extra calories from pet treats and only give human foods that are high in fiber and low in caloric density (vegetables, etc.).

Make time every day to engage in calorie-burning activities with your canine or feline companion. Dogs can be taken for longer or more intense walks or hikes. Cats can chase a feather toy or laser pointer, eat from elevated surfaces, or be required to retrieve portions of their food from puzzle-style toys.

5.  Reduce Day to Day Exposure to Toxins

Toxic exposure can initiate a variety of negative internal organ system changes in your pet. Air, water, soil, food, plants, and other substances all hold the potential to create short or long term toxicity in companion animals. Some chemicals commonly used as herbicides are associated with bladder cancer (Transitional Cell Carcinoma = TCC) in Scottish Terriers.

Strive to reduce your pet’s exposure to toxins in your home or yard by:

  • Not allowing your pet outside unless under control of a responsible adult
  • Walking your pet on a short lead
  • Pet proofing your home and yard to remove appealing substances that may be inappropriately ingested (trash, feces, plants, still water, etc.)
  • Using only pet-safe cleaning products and cleaning all chemical residues from the surfaces your pet’s body comes into contact with (as self-grooming can lead to ingestion of chemicals)
  • Reading all food and treat labels and only feeding your pets products that are free from meat and grain meals and by-products, rendered fat, animal digest, carrageenans, food dyes, meat and bone meal, and chemical preservatives (BHA, BHT, ethoxyquin, etc.)

The five tips I’ve presented here merely scratch the surface of the means by which pet owners can help maintain or improve an overall state of health and wellness in pets of all ages.

What steps do you take to reduce your pet’s chances of developing cancer?

Dr. Patrick Mahaney

Image: Joyce Marrero / via Shutterstock

Comments  11

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  • Holistic Cancer Treatment
    05/07/2013 01:31pm

    Thanks for this list. I also like to refer to this 2005 article about the holistic treatment options for cancer patients. A Holistic Approach for the Treatment of Cancer. Joe Demers, DVM, CVA, CVH. Journal of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association. Jan 2005; 23(4):31-39. http://cavalierhealth.org/images/holistic_approach_demers_ahvma_jan05.pdf

  • 05/28/2013 01:09am

    Thank you for your comments.
    I will check out the adjusted reading you offered.
    Dr. PM

  • Westie Pic Reminded Me :(
    05/07/2013 03:09pm

    I own two Westies. My tragic story revolves around way too many booster shots with my immune compromised male who died of Lymphoma at only 9 which is half a Westies life span. Back then I allowed the constant shots. They destroyed his immune system. Research made me realize what was happening. he was always lethargic and walks were out of the question. Totally anti-typical Westie behavior! Homeopathics finally got back a measure of health and got rid of the constant low-grade fever which the Vet kept wanting to treat with steroids and antibiotics. I refused.. he lived four years beyond Then he died of Lymphoma. We all know it probably was set in motion early on. I am totally against the yearly inoculations I refuse them on my two Westies now. I will not lose another one too early. I also have learned that very few dog foods don't poison our dogs. Holistic such as Blue enabled my 16 year old Westie to live to that age. I buried here a year ago. I am convinced what they eat is serious as well. They are like my children.

  • 05/28/2013 01:11am

    Thank you for your comments.
    When it comes to the provision of vaccinations, I always take my individual patient's overall state of health and lifestyle into consideration.
    Although I do recommend vaccinations for certain fatal diseases (Rabies, Distemper, Parvo, Panleukopenia, etc.), there are plenty of occasions where providing certain vaccinations on a repeat basis may be recommended, but not necessarily the healthiest choice for our pets.
    Dr. PM

  • Statistics
    05/07/2013 09:38pm

    Is it true that spay/neuter can help avoid some cancers? (I've heard that spaying a female can help avoid mammary cancer.) If so, do you have any statistics?

  • 05/08/2013 12:17pm

    IMHO my female Westie who lived to be 16, had recurring urinary tract infections throughout her life due to what the Vet referred to as "pooling" where bacteria found a breeding ground. I used Homeopathic remedies on her and the urinary issues disappeared. Like I said earlier; she lived to be 16 years old! I am inclined to believe, as a "lay person" not a professional by any means, that she would have been a prime candidate for uterine cancer as I was told early on. She was spayed at 5 months. It certainly did not hurt her. Spay incontinence is always a possibility with any female. We have to weigh the benefits/risks when we make our decision. MY big issue is with backyard breeders who allow their two year old females to have three litters within that period to make profit! I met one recently with a Boston Terrier and told him to give her a rest. People like that are killing their females . That proves the case the case for spaying!!

  • 05/07/2013 11:50pm

    The answer appears to be "no".

    A recent University of California at Davis study of golden retrievers found that early neutering was associated with an increase in the occurrence of lymphosarcoma in males. Late neutering was associated with the subsequent occurrence of mast cell tumors and hemangiosarcoma in females. See, Neutering Dogs: Effects on Joint Disorders and Cancers in Golden Retrievers. Gretel Torres de la Riva, Benjamin L. Hart, Thomas B. Farver, Anita M. Oberbauer, Locksley L. McV Messam, Neil Willits, Lynette A. Hart. PLOSone. Feb. 2013.

    In a June 2012 review of studies of neutering and mammary cancer in dogs, the authors found that: "Due to the limited evidence available and the risk of bias in the published results, the evidence that neutering reduces the risk of mammary neoplasia, and the evidence that age at neutering has an effect, are judged to be weak and are not a sound basis for firm recommendations." See, The effect of neutering on the risk of mammary tumours in dogs – a systematic review. W. Beauvais, J. M. Cardwell and D. C. Brodbelt. J.Sm.Anim.Pract, June 2012; 53(6): 314-322.

  • 05/28/2013 01:17am

    Thank you lending your insights.
    Yet, there are many other occasions (besides the specific references to cancer) when performing a spade or neuter helps with the overall health of our pets. In making specific reference to cancer, I have to think of the positive affect neutering has on essentially eliminating testicular cancer. Unfortunately, neutering reportedly quadruples the risk of prostate cancers. Since cancer in both humans and animals is so multifactorial (genetic, environment, lifestyle, exposure to environmental toxins, etc.) we cannot necessarily speak of one specific action (performing or not performing a spade or neutered) to hold the key.
    Dr. PM

  • 05/09/2013 04:32pm

    Great list. Too bad this has to be called "holistic" health or cancer prevention tips. I wish it was more common for all vets. I'd like to find a vet who is focused on all these issues, but so far I haven't found one.

    I wasn't clear on the whole vaccine issue when my older cat who had diabetes was still given vaccinations - and by a "feline-only" vet. This vet never discussed vaccine issues with me, didn't bring up the fact that he had a chronic illness and animals with illness shouldn't be vaccinated (this is on the label, isn't it?) Also she didn't follow the AAFP guidelines of the main FVRCP vac being given "no more frequently than every three years." I wonder how those substances affected my sweet boy's system. I am aware of the research at CSU by Dr. Lappin concerning vaccines and kidney disease. There don't appear to be clear cut answers from that research yet, but it still lingers in my mind since he developed CKD and passed on recently. It haunts me (and really angers me) that a veterinarian would just so casually inject these powerful drugs without discussion. And this is a fairly large and sophisticated clinic with all the best technology, etc. At the time I thought I HAD to vaccinate. Probably like many people when you get those little post cards in the mail and don't know any better. Thank goodness for the internet for this and for other issues.

    I hope more research such as the Rabies Challenge Fund will help increase knowledge and perhaps change/extent the legal requirement for vaccines (the rabies vaccine in this case, which is one of the goals of the RCF). If anyone isn't aware of this research: http://www.rabieschallengefund.org/

    Didn't mean to focus only on vaccines; all those are important points. The food issue is big -- really good info. I also read the linked article on Feed Grade Foods which was also great. Really good advice to give cats and dogs less than recommended amounts of food, even though they will look at us and say..."I want more".

    Thank you!

  • 05/13/2013 07:33pm

    I meant to say BOOSTERS in most of my comments above about the vaccine issue. Fortunately I am aware (have become aware) that these 'yearly shots' are not really "vaccinations", but simply booster shots. Shot which in many cases probably aren't needed as many vaccinations have a long, in some cases life-long, duration of immunity. I made that error in my comments by calling boosters "vaccinations", but I think that is what a lot of people think when they bring their pets in for "shots" - that they are vaccinating when they are really giving pets so-called boosters (meaning previously vaccinated cats and dogs, of course). Yes, it's a complicated issue, but I think we should expect some basic information and communication from vets, and expect vets to follow guidelines such as the AAFP guidelines, etc., expect that our ill pets will not be given boosters.

    It's really upsetting when I allow myself to think about some of the "vet care" my companion animals have received. Sometimes it seems that vets aren't held to as high standards, because of the "it's JUST a cat or dog" mentality. Not meaning anything disrespectful to you or vets in general, but there are issues here.

  • 05/28/2013 01:19am

    Thank you for your comments.
    As pets owners are becoming more aware, they hold a valuable position in being the best advocates for their pets' health (even in the face of recommendations for health providers and industry claims).
    Dr. PM

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