Skip to main content

Interview With a Veterinarian: What Do I Do When My Dog Has Cancer?

Donna partners with Dr. Cathy Alinovi, a retired veterinarian, to create informative pet health articles.

Female dog with mammary tumor (see yellow arrow for location)

Female dog with mammary tumor (see yellow arrow for location)

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): 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 Cancer Types 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.

Lymphoma is commonly seen in canines.

Lymphoma is commonly seen in canines.

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 cancer. Recently, one family with four mixed breed dogs (of all different backgrounds and histories, but all under eight 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 and not noticeable. They just cause 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

Bladder tumors

Brain tumors

Breast cancer

Blood and/or bone marrow


Bone (not the marrow, the structural part of bone)

Perianal tumors

Nasal tumors

Mast cell tumor on Labrador retriever's lip

Mast cell tumor on Labrador retriever's lip

Common Dog Cancers

Type of Cancer




Mast cell tumors

Oral melanoma


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

Abdominal swelling

Anorexia (loss of appetite)


Lethargy (lack of energy)

Lumps (new or enlarging, painful, bleeding)

Malodorous (stinky) mouth

Nasal bleeding

Persistent diarrhea or vomiting

Unhealed sores

Weakness (overall)

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, and 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 are more treatment methods not on the tip of my tongue right now.

How do these work? The western herbs address leaky gut (intestinal dysbiosis)—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 wherein the body and can act on what kinds of tumors.

Nutraceuticals include 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 food.

Alternative Canine Cancer Treatments

Non-traditional Dog Cancer Treatments




Nutriceutical (supplements)

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 the 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/email interview with Dr. Cathy Alinovi of Hoofstock Veterinary Services, 03/19/2013

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2013 Donna Cosmato

What Has Been Your Experience With Dog Cancer?

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on December 03, 2015:

Donna, thanks for sharing this interview about dog cancers and the treatment for it. A friend of mine had a dog that had cancer many years ago, when I lived in New Jersey. This was interesting to know. Congrats on HOTD!

Nadine May from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa on December 03, 2015:

A very interesting article. My first reaction would be: if my dog's or cat's quality of life has dropped drastically due to cancer, or any other disease, I will have to consider euthanasia. Never will I EXPOSE ANY OF MY ANIMALS TO Chemotherapy. I would not wish that kind of treatment to anybody.

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on December 03, 2015:

This is a most useful, comprehensive article. Thank you for taking the time to interview an expert for this article. None of my dogs have cancer, but the event of death is always something I wonder about, and the answer about euthanasia is an important guideline for me. Again, thank you so very, very much!

dearabbysmom from Indiana on March 22, 2014:

Are fatty tumors necessarily considered a skin cancer? I just had some biopsied on one of my dogs and my vet said there were no cancer cells, only fat cells. Do they become cancerous over time? I figured I'd keep close watch to make sure they are not growing. Thanks for the information, especially about the raw diet!

Donna Cosmato (author) from USA on April 29, 2013:

Thanks for reading and sharing this article on dog cancer, Lisa! I appreciate all your help and support.

liswilliams from South Africa on April 29, 2013:

Thanks for a really informative hub and interview. It will help many people. I will definitely share it!

Donna Cosmato (author) from USA on March 22, 2013:

Thank you for reading and commenting on this article about a sad subject - dog cancer BlossomSB. I appreciate your vote of support!

Bronwen Scott-Branagan from Victoria, Australia on March 21, 2013:

Thank you for such an informative article. It is very helpful. Voted it up.

Donna Cosmato (author) from USA on March 20, 2013:

Thanks alexadry - the very thought of cancer is mind-numbing to me. We've lost several pets to it so I was glad to get Dr. Cathy's advice on the subject.

Adrienne Farricelli on March 20, 2013:

A very thorough and authoritative hub on a topic we all fear in our four-legged friends. Voted up!

Donna Cosmato (author) from USA on March 19, 2013:

Thank you for the vote up LCDWriter! I'm glad this was helpful for you.

L C David from Florida on March 19, 2013:

This is very fascinating and full of useful information for dog owners. Voting up!

Donna Cosmato (author) from USA on March 19, 2013:

Thank you Lady Guinevere! I'm glad Dr. Cathy and I could give you some answers to your questions.

Debra Allen from West Virginia on March 19, 2013:

Voted up and interesting and useful. I will be sharing this one for sure. Thanks for the candid answers.