Interview with a Veterinarian: What Do I Do When My Dog Has Cancer?
Cancer could be the scariest word in the human language because cancer is no respecter of humans or animals. When you find out your dog has cancer, you may be overwhelmed with questions or confused about what to do.
Dr. Cathy Alinovi of Hoofstock Veterinary Services answers the most commonly asked questions about dog cancer in this candid interview.
Question 1 (Q1): It's my understanding cancer is the leading cause of canine death. Would you agree with that statement?
Dr. Cathy: I think the answer to this question depends on what type of practice you are in; a teaching hospital will see much different cases than those of us out in the field. In general practice, which is essentially what I do, the most common cause of death is any debilitating disease. Cancer is in the debilitating disease group, but so is heart, liver, kidney failure, pneumonia, pancreatitis, and diabetes.
Q2: What types of cancer do you see most often in your practice?
Dr. Cathy: Skin cancers are very common, especially fatty tumors. Perianal adenomas (fancy term for tumors in the region around the anus) are most common in intact males; mammary tumors are most common in intact females. Bone, oral cancer and lymphoma are probably next in my experience.
Q3: What other types of cancer might a dog have?
Dr. Cathy: Basically, you name an organ system and it can have cancer. Bladder cancer, heart-base tumors, tumors of the spleen, pancreas, even the nerves can have their own tumor.
Q4: Are you seeing more or fewer canine patients with cancer now than in the past?
Dr. Cathy: I'm seeing more cases but I also have more tools to work with to fight the cancer. Recently, one family with four mixed breed dogs (of all different backgrounds, histories, but all under 8 years old) had two dogs diagnosed with cancer within two months of each other. One dog with lymphoma, the other with a nerve sheath tumor – completely different but bothersome – the owners want to know “why?” as would any pet parent.
Q5: Why do you think the number of cancer cases is rising?
Dr. Cathy: We do more “things” to our dogs. These “things” are intended in their best interest but can cause side effects. The side effects are often subtle, nothing noticeable, just causes a touch more inflammation in the body. Later, cancer may develop.
A well-known, recent example is vaccine-associated sarcomas in cats. The practice for years was to vaccinate pets in the loose skin around the neck – they don’t fuss much, it’s easy to get to – but enough cats developed a horribly aggressive tumor at the vaccine location that researchers realized it was linked to the vaccinations.
It is believed the tumor is due to the adjuvant (the chemical in the vaccine that stimulates the immune system to respond and protect against the disease). So, now, adjuvant-free vaccines, especially rabies, are available to veterinarians (most vets don’t use them). Dogs can also have a vaccine-associated tumor, so it is wise to use the adjuvant-free rabies vaccine in both dogs and cats.
In the charts below, I've listed the most common dog cancers by location or type.
Common Canine Cancers
Location of Cancer
Blood and/or bone marrow
Bone (not the marrow, the structural part of bone)
Common Dog Cancers
Type of Cancer
Mast cell tumors
Soft tissue sarcoma
Transitional cell carcinoma
Q6: How do dogs get cancer?
Dr. Cathy: As alluded to in the question above, cancer is inflammation gone wrong. The adjuvant in the rabies vaccine is meant to stimulate the immune system. Problem is, it overstimulates the fibroblasts (little cells in the tissues that make collagen – the stuff that makes our skin stretch) and the fibroblasts can’t shut off; consequently, they overgrow and make an aggressive tumor – a sarcoma.
A brief aside about naming of tumors – “oma” means mass or tumor, “sarcoma” means a bad, aggressive tumor. So, a lipoma is a fatty (lip) mass (oma) that tends to be benign (non-aggressive), but an osteosarcoma is a horribly aggressive bone (osteo) tumor (sarcoma).
Back to how dogs get cancer. A normal part of the cell life cycle is programmed cell death. Any cell in the body is programmed to die, it's just that skin cells die faster than muscle cells. In cancer, this programmed cell death does not happen and the cells overgrow. There is actually a part of the DNA that gets turned on by chemicals, radiation, toxins, and other pro-inflammatory things, and increases the chance of cancer.
Q7: How can I protect my dog from cancer?
Dr. Cathy: In a nutshell: reduce inflammation. But what is pro-inflammatory? Vaccines, medication, flea and tick medicine, the ingredients of most commercial pet food, carpet, cleaning chemicals, pollution, grooming products – anything we put on or in our dogs can lead to cancer.
Q8: Is a cancer diagnosis a "death sentence" for my dog?
Dr. Cathy: Definitely not! First, we need to know what type of cancer it is – some cancers are non-aggressive, some are very treatable, and some are very scary. Once you know the type of cancer, then you can determine the best treatment plan.
Traditional Dog Cancer Treatments
Mass removal (surgery)
Q9: What are the cancer symptoms in dogs?
Dr. Cathy: Some cancers are obvious masses growing on the patient but the dog may or may not have clinical signs. Some can be found in our dogs pretty easily by palpation, radiographs and/or ultrasound.
Signs can be vague. For instance, in bladder cancer it’s peeing a lot and trying really hard but very little comes out. In bone cancer, there’s an obvious mass. In liver cancer, it can be vomiting, jaundice and swollen abdomen. In a heart base tumor, it can be a cough.
See my chart below for the most common signs of cancer in dogs.
Most Common Dog Cancer Symptoms
Anorexia (loss of appetite)
Lethargy (lack of energy)
Lumps (new or enlarging, painful, bleeding)
Malodorous (stinky) mouth
Persistent diarrhea or vomiting
Weight loss (sudden or unexplained)
Q10: What's the best diet for dogs with cancer?
Dr. Cathy: While I’m normally not a dictator about exactly what and how to feed well (I do insist on feeding our dogs well, I just know there’s more than one way to do that), I am when it comes to cancer. Cancer patients must eat healthy, well-balanced raw food.
A few of my cancer patients can’t digest raw food well, so I usually try to help that with digestive enzymes; but even lightly cooking the meat increases cancer patient’s inflammation. From a Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective, raw food is cooling and cancer is HOT.
From a more conventional view, raw food is least processed, therefore, least inflammatory and will contribute least to the tumor’s growth. I had one cancer patient; she had a nasty, aggressive oral tumor, whose tumor was kept under control for two years with a raw diet and an anti-viral herb (she had been given four months to live).
When the family could no longer afford the raw diet, they started cooking, the tumor started to grow, and the dog really started shedding again (she didn’t shed much on the raw diet). A balanced raw diet is key to controlling cancer.
Q11: What types of alternative cancer treatments do you recommend?
Dr. Cathy: Each case is different and I treat each one as an individual. The only thing set in stone for me is to feed the best food possible, (see the previous question). Then, treatment depends on where the cancer is, how aggressive, what other (conventional) treatments are going on, what the dog will tolerate, what the parent is interested in.
My options: treat all inflammation in the body not addressed by food, herbs (western and/or Chinese), nutraceuticals, chiropractic, acupuncture, homeopathy, and I’m sure there’s more treatment methods not on the tip of my tongue right now.
How do these work? The western herbs address leaky gut (intestinal dybsiosis) – inflammation in the gut from when we accidentally fed not the best quality of food.
Traditional Chinese Veterinary Herbal formulas are based on thousands of years of experience with the herbs and which ones act where in the body and can act on what kinds of tumors.
Nutraceuticals includes vitamins to detoxify the liver, omega-fatty acids to balance the diet, probiotics and digestive enzymes to help the intestines – it’s a huge array of “supplements” that help the body perform its best.
Veterinary spinal manipulation therapy (VSMT, or animal chiropractic) restores motion to the body. The restored motion sends better information to the brain, the brain then regulates the entire body’s performance, including the immune system – which is not well regulated in cancer. Similarly, studies have shown some acupuncture points can increase levels of natural anti-inflammatory products in the body, so the body can help balance itself.
Homeopathy looks at a body of symptoms –the whole body – and helps that body return to balance (in balance, cells aren’t overgrowing and making large masses). But, my most important tool, is the food.
Alternative Canine Cancer Treatments
Non-traditional Dog Cancer Treatments
Q12: How much will it cost to treat a dog with cancer?
Dr. Cathy: This question totally depends on the type of cancer and the route of treatment the pet parent decides. Bone cancer with radiation therapy given at a teaching hospital will cost thousands of dollars, whereas a fatty tumor will often be left alone unless it’s growing rapidly.
Q 13: What's the survival rate for dogs with cancer?
Dr. Cathy: This depends on type of cancer, how early it is caught and how effective anti-inflammatory protocols are.
Q14: If my dog's prognosis is poor, what are the best palliative measures to keep him comfortable?
Dr. Cathy: Steroids, coupled with newer pain medications (like gabapentin and buprenorphine), are often excellent for pain control as well as increasing the appetite, decreasing the rate of change of the mass, and giving the patient a temporary feeling of euphoria.
Arnica and/or Hypericum homeopathic treatments can help with pain. VSMT and acupuncture, as described above, can help with comfort. When the benefits of the medications and the treatments stop helping, it’s often time to consider quality of life issues.
Q15: If the odds for survival are poor, should I consider euthanasia?
Dr. Cathy: My best answer to this question is only when your pet’s quality of life is not what it should be. This is often a hard thing to figure out. I suggest that when your dog no longer wants to do his or her favorite thing, it’s time. So, just because the odds of survival are poor, you can’t really predict with complete accuracy, and, if (s)he still does his/her favorite thing, then have fun together. Every day is a blessing.
Telephone interview with Dr. Cathy Alinovi of Hoofstock Veterinary Services, 03/19/2013
Email interview with Dr. Cathy Alinovi of Hoofstock Veterinary Services, 03/03/2013
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