Pets get cancer, too

Pets get cancer, too

Like humans, best defense is early detection, healthy lifestyle


About a year ago, Sherie Masters of Melbourne Beach noticed her cat, Ricky, was limping.

"I just thought he had pulled something," she said.

She took him to her veterinarian, where Ricky underwent
X-rays. The veterinarian wasn't happy with the results.

"The vet sent us to a medical center in Ohio, a hospital for pets," she said.

Prognosis: Bone cancer.

The news was especially troubling because in 2003, Masters lost her 12-year-old feline, Gracie, who developed squamous cell carcinoma, a type of bone cancer in her face.

Certainly Ricky was 20 years old and had lived a spirited life, "but I wanted to at least find out what my options were."

Her pet's oncologist was honest, brutally honest.

"Just to get a biopsy, they would have had to remove his leg, and I knew I wasn't going to put him through that at his age," she said. "Ultimately, they thought the radiation would be more for me than for the cat."

By the time Ricky developed his condition, Masters had learned a great deal about pets and cancer through hours spent researching Gracie's illness online.

"I knew all the terms, so I was able to understand what the doctors were trying to explain to me," she said.

She also visited online chat rooms relating to pets with cancer. She even updated a daily blog based on Gracie's final days. It wasn't a happy story.

While support was readily available from fellow pet lovers online, she was disheartened by the lack of stories about cats that had survived bone cancer.

Like humans, the older pets get, the more likely they will succumb to cancer.

"The immune system isn't as good as pets get older," said Dr. Roger Welton of West Melboune's Maybeck Animal Hospital.

He said a pet's best defense against cancer is annual physical exams -- certain types of skin cancer, when caught early, can be removed -- and a good diet.

"So many of the supermarket brands of pet food are loaded with fillers and preservatives," Welton said. "We want foods that have essential amino acids and don't have the preservatives."

Before adopting a pet, research the breed and the possible cancers that might develop as the pet ages.

Pets with light pigmentation, white fur and pink noses are more predisposed to developing melanoma. Which means pet owners should be wary of how much time Snowball the cat is basking in the sun, either outside or on a sunlit porch.

"Cats tend to be hearty creatures and can take a lot of pain," Welton said. "Watch for signs, such as redness around the ears, just like in humans."

In recent years, strides have been made to help veterinarians recognize cancer in animals and to assist in control and cure of cancer in pets. Still, local vets are inclined to refer owners to specialists such as oncologists when they suspect cancer.

"For every tumor and for every cancer people get, there's an example of that found in cats and dogs," said Dr. Rowan Milner, service chief for the oncology section at the Veterinary Medical Center at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

The school is one of three in the country that is developing a melanoma vaccine for pets.

Still, he cautions that vaccines, as they relate to pets, are somewhat of a misnomer.

"For instance, the vaccine for cervical cancer in women is designed to fight against the virus that causes the cancer," he said. "In pets, the vaccine is used to stimulate the body to fight the cancer."

He also recommends healthy diets and annual physicals, especially in older pets.

"But often by the time we see physical signs of cancer -- weight loss or vomiting or diarrhea or blood in the stool -- it's often too advanced to effect a good quality of life," Milner said.

While improvements have been made in the field of pet oncology, "in veterinarian oncology we try to get across to the owners that our primary role as veterinarians is to prevent suffering," Milner said. "Our goal is to give a quality of life. We're not going to push on with a treatment if we know there is going to be no benefit.

For Masters, letting go of her pets was difficult. Still, because of the research and the time spent taking her pets to specialist across the country, she knows she made the right decision.

The good news for pet owners is in some cases, cancer can be misdiagnosed.

"We almost put our family dog to sleep because she was getting sick and cancer was suspected," said Adam Gracia, community relations manager for the Central Brevard Humane Society. "We got one last opinion. It turned out it wasn't cancer and the doctor was able to help the dog with vitamins, a treatment we hadn't thought of."

Tips on how to help sick pets Ask your vet about incorporating healthy food in your pet's diet. Take pets in for check-ups every year. Once a pet is diagnosed with cancer, treatments can be costly and time consuming. Before settling on a treatment, consider options such as the pet's age and likelihood of survival. Treatments such as radiation can be stressful on the pet. So consider the pet's quality of life. Online chat discussions can provide information and support for the owner of the ailing pet. If a pet must be put down, owners should plan for a grieving period.

Some owners find closure by visiting The Rainbow Bridge Community Chapel where pets can be remembered in a private setting. Here, they can also leave a permanent memorial or show support for Brevard's homeless animals by purchasing a personalized brick paver or stepping stone. The chapel is run by the Central Brevard Humane Society. -- Breuse Hickman,FLORIDA TODAY