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