Answering your questions about cancer in animals for World Cancer Day 2019

Nick Bacon, Michael Macfarlane and Laurent Findji

To mark World Cancer Day on 4th February 2019, Fitzpatrick Referrals invited questions from the public about cancer in animals and our oncology specialists answered as many as possible over on our Twitter page @Fitzpatrickref.

Taking part in the Q & A were veterinary specialists:

  • Clinical Director Oncologic and Soft Tissue Surgery, Professor Nick Bacon, MA VetMB CertVR CertSAS DiplECVS DACVS FRCVS
  • Senior Clinician Oncologic and Soft Tissue Surgery, Dr Laurent Findji, DMV MS DiplECVS MRCVS
  • Senior Clinician Medical Oncology, Dr Michael Macfarlane, BVMS DipECVIM-CA (Oncology) MRCVS

When faced with a cancer diagnosis we understand that what people seek most of all is information and options. Empowerment demystifies and disarms cancer, and this generates hope for an improved, potentially cancer-free life.

Below, you can find of all of the questions they answered.

Q & As

Our 6-month-old Springer puppy has had a hazelnut-sized lump on his side since he was 3 months old – sometimes it gets bigger and then goes back to original size. Can puppies get cancerous lumps? Should we get it aspirated?

Thanks for your question. It is less common than in older animals, but unfortunately, some puppies can develop cancer. We would generally recommend that any lump which has been present for longer than a month and is bigger than a centimetre is sampled.

It’s probably an obvious question, but what are the early symptoms to look out for in dogs? And do they always present the same or differently depending on the type of cancer?

Different cancers will present with different symptoms. Lumps and bumps are easy to keep an eye out for, there is a great video on our Youtube channel showing how you can do this! Otherwise, yes, each cancer tends to cause some symptoms most commonly. Laurent Findji

Why do 60% of Golden Retrievers develop cancer?  Is there any test/screening that can be done so early diagnosis/prevention can occur?

Unfortunately, there are no screening tests for cancer in general. There are specific tests for specific once cancer is found, but not for preventive screening. The best is to just to consult a vet if your friend is showing signs of illness. Laurent Findji

Professor Nick Bacon with patient at Fitzpatrick Referrals Oncology and Soft Tissue hospital in Guildford

Professor Nick Bacon with patient Willow.

Is cancer simply just down to family/species history and genes? Are there ways to reduce the risk of cancer in our pets? Thanks!

Hello. In dogs and cats, we know what causes some cancers for example sunlight, second-hand smoke, some pesticides. Unfortunately, there are many genetic causes that come to light as the population ages, just as there are in people. Keeping their weight under control, regular exercise and routine vet checks are all important to spot things early! Nick Bacon

Are we seeing more cancer diagnosis because there are more patients with cancer or because the oncology specialty has evolved so much?

Probably a bit of both. Our animal friends are exposed to the same environment as we are, increasing their risk of cancer, and benefit too from the same progression of medicine, helping us finding their cancer more rapidly and more often.

What’s the best diet for a dog to be on when they are having chemotherapy?

Good question Natalie! We recommend a ‘complete’ diet – look for that on the labelling. Try not to change diets too quickly as that can upset their stomachs. Sometimes on chemotherapy we have to tempt them a little to get them going and so the rules get broken! Nick Bacon

What cancer do horses get?

Melanoma (black pigmented masses) and squamous cell carcinoma on the skin. Treating cancer in horses is more difficult than cats and dogs, but there are normally things that can be done to help.

If you suspect a lump is cancerous (not just a fatty lump…) What is the best way to diagnose? Needle in the lump? And from that…confirm with scans/bloods?

A “needle in the lump” would be an excellent start! The next step will mostly depend on the results from that… it could be a biopsy, bloods, x-rays, ultrasound, CT scan for more diagnosis, or directly treatment with surgery for instance. Laurent Findji

How likely is it for a dog never to get cancer?

With excellent diets and good vet care throughout their lives, animals live much longer. Dogs who are 12-15 years old now is not uncommon and so sadly we see cancer more than we used to.

Why do humans lose hair when undergoing chemotherapy, while animals like dogs do not shed fur?

The cycle of hair growth is different in people and in dogs and also the dose of chemotherapy that we use is less in dogs- most dogs, therefore, look the same as before treatment. However, some dog’s hair coat will thin a little, some clipped patches may take longer to grow back and I have seen 2 dogs whose hair colour has changed after treatment! Thankfully, they didn’t seem to mind. Michael Macfarlane

Brinkley the Fitzpatrick Referrals Oncology and Soft Tissue receiving Chemotherapy

Are there any breeds of dogs that are particularly prone to cancers? Are dogs and bitches equally susceptible?

Many breeds are at increased risk of developing one or several specific cancers. Likewise, some cancers are more common in males than females and vice-versa. So there is no general rule, it all depends on the type of cancer! Laurent Findji

Do animals have the same reaction to chemo and cancer drugs that humans have?

We do everything that we can to stop dogs and cats from having the same reaction to chemotherapy as are often associated with humans. To do this, we give a smaller dose and supportive treatments at the same. Our aim for animals to live their normal lives when receiving treatments. Michael Macfarlane

So how do you decide when to go ahead with chemo or cancer drugs, knowing the dog or cat won’t understand how they feel and when is it simply not morally right for them to be put through it?

There are lots of factors which go into this decision and it is unique to every cat or dog that we see. We are always very careful to try to choose the best option in collaboration with the patient’s family. The fact that we can’t explain what is happening means that we can only recommend chemotherapy if we know that there is a good chance of it working and of it not causing side effects. If either of these aspects aren’t right, we don’t go ahead with chemotherapy treatment. Michael Macfarlane

After an amputation for cancer, when do you start chemotherapy? Does the length of the delay affect survival?

We wait until the pathology is back from the lab before we start chemo – that might take 1-2 weeks. We want to make sure the patient needs it all and also which drug might be used. Luckily a delay of that time frame (1-2 weeks) does not impact on outcome in most cases. Nick Bacon

Are there any diets you recommend to reduce the risk of cancer in dogs? (Particularly MCTs – mast cell tumours)

There is no specific evidence that a particular diet can help to prevent cancer. So we can recommend a high quality, complete diet. Some dogs will allergies will benefit from a particular diet. Your vet may be able to advise on this. Michael Macfarlane

The big question is what triggers normally healthy cells to become cancerous?

Cancer requires a series of changes to the cell’s normal DNA. These changes can happen within a short period of time or over many years. Amazingly, the same cancer in two different dogs can be made up of completely different changes to the DNA which I find fascinating. Many newer cancer treatments are now directed at targeting these specific changes. Michael Macfarlane

Do wild animals get cancer?

Great question! Yes, in theory. The signs and symptoms would go untreated and worsen however and so would shorten their lives in the wild. We do occasionally get asked to comment on zoo animals that might have cancer. Nick Bacon

Can animals get cancer from cigarettes?

Yes they can. Recent work has shown that both cats and dogs can develop cancer in their nose, lungs and intestines from being in smoky areas, on smoky clothes, and lying on smoky carpets. Keep them safe! Nick Bacon

As always, if you have any health concerns about your animals, please seek the advice of your local vet. If they feel a referrals is required, they will arrange this for you to the referral centre of your choice.

Read more about our oncology service

Fitzpatrick Referrals