Cancer Prevention in Pets
Cancer doesn’t have just one cause, and the development of cancer typically stems from a complex interplay of genetic factors, environmental factors, and chance. This multifactorial nature means that while we do not know how to prevent cancer, there are certain easy steps we can take to reduce cancer risks in our pets.
Spaying and neutering:
Age-appropriate spaying and neutering has a number of health benefits for our pets, with the prevention of certain cancers being one benefit. Mammary tumors (the animal form of breast cancer) are very common in female cats and dogs and can be deadly. Spaying before the first heat cycle, (known as estrus) greatly reduces the risk of mammary cancer, and most female dogs and cats experience their first heat cycle at 4-6 months of age. If spayed before this time, dogs have a 0.05% risk of mammary cancer, as opposed to 26% for dogs spayed later in life. For males, neutering eliminates the risk of testicular cancer and greatly reduces the risk of a typically benign but very uncomfortable anal tumor called a perianal adenoma.
Tobacco smoke is not just hazardous to our health! We don’t yet know all the risks of secondhand smoke in pets, but studies have shown an increase in lung cancer, nasal cancer, and (in cats) oral cancer in pets regularly exposed to secondhand smoke.
Avoiding excess sun exposure:
While our pets’ fur coat makes them much less sensitive to UV damage than we are, they are still at risk. White or partially white cats, for instance, are prone to developing a skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma on their ears, eyelids, and nose. Even frequent indoor sunbathing can be hazardous for these pets. For dogs, sun-induced skin cancers are most common in outdoor-housed dogs, usually appearing as tumors on the sparsely haired skin of the belly, groin, and inner thighs.
Avoiding chemical hazards:
With their love of playing in the grass and exploring the outdoors, dogs often come into very close contact with herbicides, pesticides and other lawn care products. While the exact connection between cancer incidence and these chemicals is not completely known, some studies have linked exposure to certain herbicides to bladder cancer in dogs. Avoid use of these chemicals in your own yard and take care to avoid walking your dog in grass that has been treated with pesticides or herbicides, especially in the first 48 hours after application. Wiping your dogs’ paws when they come back in from the house also helps reduce exposure to any chemicals they may have encountered.
The most important step, however, is early detection of cancers to help facilitate earlier and more effective treatments. This early detection starts at home when you keep a close eye on your pet’s routine and habits in order to alert your veterinarian to any new or concerning symptoms. Even if your pet seems normal at home, we also recommend keeping up with regular check-ups with your veterinarian (especially as pets age) to look for more subtle changes. This important collaboration between vets and pet owners is the most powerful way to identify problems before they progress, helping pets live longer, healthier lives.
Dr. Chelsea del Alcazar is a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (Oncology). She graduated from Columbia University, where she majored in Molecular Biology. She attended veterinary school at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine before completing a 1-year Small Animal internship and a 1-year Specialty internship in Oncology at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston, followed by a 3-year medical oncology residency program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine .