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Cancer Is Leading Disease-Related Killer Of Dogs And Cats

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Vets wheel a pet patient into the Comprehensive Cancer Care Unit at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. (Credit: Penn Vets)

Vets wheel a pet patient into the Comprehensive Cancer Care Unit at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. (Credit: Penn Vets)

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By Steve Grzanich-

CHICAGO (CBS) – Cancer is the number-one disease-related killer of dogs and cats and claims the lives of millions of pets each year. According to the latest statistics, one-in-four dogs and one-in-five cats will develop cancer in their lifetimes. But there is hope and researchers at one of the country’s leading veterinary schools are working on a possible vaccine and new therapies for pet cancer.

“In the past 20 years, we’ve made some great strides towards improved outcomes and improved life expectancy after a diagnosis of cancer and certainly, as technology has improved, we’ve been able to treat some cancers more specifically than we have in the past,” says Dr. Erika Krick, Director, Comprehensive Cancer Care Program, University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.

At Penn Vet, experts are working to improve the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer in animals. Their chief goals are improving survival and quality of life for pets with cancer.

“A large part of our goal in veterinary oncology is improving our pet’s quality of life. That will often translate into a longer quantity of time because the better that the pet is feeling, the longer it is until clients are forced to make that ultimate decision.”

Lymphoma is one of the most common pet cancers but dogs and cats can also develop skin cancer, bone and joint cancer, liver, bladder, brain, spinal cord and breast cancer. Some are more survivable than others.

“There are some cancers that are just so aggressive that even if you catch them early unfortunately the outcome is probably not going to be great. But there are a variety of tumors for which the size of the mass really does matter for prognosis. Surgery is the mainstay of treatment for most of those tumors so it makes sense that the smaller they are, the easier it is to get good surgical removal,” says Krick.

As is the case with humans, early detection is very important to increase the odds of a successful outcome for pets.

“That’s another reason to keep up with routine wellness care. The veterinarian can do a full exam and note any changes from the visit before, including changes in weight, lumps or bumps that are new or that have been there for a while but are changing suddenly.”

Pet owners can also take steps to monitor their dog or cat for symptoms of cancer. Pay close attention to pet behavior and appearance and between veterinary visits, conduct wellness checks at least once a month. Look for lumps and bumps when you give tummy scratches or cuddle with your pet. Watch for any changes in how your pet walks. Is he or she limping? Check between toes and pay special attention to your cat’s face and lips.

Keep your pet lean and fit because overweight pets are more prone to certain cancers. Manage environmental risks and remember that landscaping chemicals and second-hand smoke can cause cancer in pets just like humans.

Other warning signs of pet cancer include: abnormal swellings that persist or continue to grow, sores that do not heal, unexplained weight loss, loss of appetite. bleeding or discharge, offensive odor, difficulty eating or swallowing, hesitation to exercise or loss of stamina, persistent lameness or stiffness and difficulty breathing, urinating or defecating.

Krick says an important part of treating pets with cancer is helping pet owners come to terms with the diagnosis and understand all the options available.

“Often times it takes some time to process this diagnosis. There are some people who find out their pet has cancer and say tell me what I need to do, I’m ready to do it right now. Then there are other people who need a couple of days to process this and figure out what to do.”

Pet owners must also prepare for the worst and develop a strategy for caring for a pet with a cancer. That includes finding a veterinarian with the appropriate experience and knowledgebase.

“Although the word cancer is really scary, there are some cancers in dogs and cats that are actually associated with a very good outcome. I would encourage pet owners to find out more information about what could be done and what some realistic outcomes could be. It may be as bad as they think but sometimes it’s not.”

Penn Vet researchers have reported progress in developing a cancer vaccine for pets. Of the first five dogs vaccinated in a clinical trial, four are still alive and survived between 500 and 590 days. Three dogs are tumor-free. Krick says the vaccine being developed stimulates an anti-tumor immune response that can kill cancer cells and prevent tumor recurrence.

Researchers have also been testing alternative therapies including one that involves a mushroom compound that’s been used in traditional Chinese medicine for more than 2,000 years. The mushroom therapy resulted in some of the longest survival rates ever reported for dogs with a type of cancer that typically affects the spleen. Median survival had been 86 days but dogs in the Penn Vet trial survived for more than a year.

For more information on Penn Vet and its pet cancer research and treatment visit them online at www.vet.upenn.edu. You can also find more information at www.petcancerawareness.org and www.curepetcancer.com.

To listen to the full interview with Dr. Erika Krick, click here.

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