Your 7-Point Checklist for Proactive Cancer Detection in Pets

Medical articles
a man holding a golden retriever while a woman veterinarian does a checkup

It’s a fact: If we’re lucky to live long enough, we’ll all get cancer. It’s just how aging mammalian cells work –– or, rather, fail to work properly. Mistakes in the repair mechanism of cells (many of them effectively genetically preprogrammed to occur) will lead to a loss of normal regulation. Affected cells will lose their normal control mechanisms and new cells will subsequently grow at an abnormal rate and in aberrant fashion.

What I’ve described is an oversimplification, of course, but one that finds many of my clients feeling just a smidge better about the fact that their pets have cancer: After all, most have been fortunate enough to see their pets into their geriatric years, which is when the vast majority of cancers occur.

Not that this rational approach makes it anything less than tragic whenever our pets are diagnosed with cancer. Last week, when I had to make the decision to euthanize my foster Frenchie, Napoleon, it was hard to remind myself to think rationally. I mean, it’s hard to feel grateful that you’ve enjoyed so much time together after finding a cancerous mass inside your pet’s chest –– not immediately, anyway.

One week later, it’s abundantly clear that there was nothing I could have done to prevent his cancer and very little I might’ve done to give me some more time between diagnosis and euthanasia. His cancer was simply too aggressive. But not all cancers are like that. I had only to talk to a cancer survivor who lucked out after feeling a teensy mass in his testicle to know that even the most aggressive cancers are sometimes bested by virtue of equally aggressive action.

Being proactive is the key to success in cases like my friend’s. Even if an outright cure isn’t possible, finding things early on can mean more precious time with loved ones. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? For our pets that’s certainly the case. Quality over quantity is even more important when your patient doesn’t understand the stakes as well as you do.

“But that’s so depressing,” you might say. “Isn’t there something concrete we can do to reduce our pets’ risk of a deadly cancer diagnosis?

Well, sure. Be proactive. To that end, here are six tried and true approaches to early cancer detection in pets:

#1 Routine Physical Examination

Annual physical examination is important for all pets and semi-annual screening is crucial for all geriatric patients. It’s when we find most visible cancers. Skip this step at your pet’s peril.

#2 Routine Blood Work

Unfortunately, most cancers aren’t detectable via routine laboratory screening. Some, however, are. Apart from some blood cancers, which can cause abnormal levels of certain white blood cells (detectable in a CBC), a high calcium level (in a blood chemistry screen) can also point to certain types of cancers. Severe anemias can also indirectly lead to cancer diagnoses, as can elevated liver enzymes, for example.

As with physical exams, annual blood testing is important for all pets and semi-annual screening is crucial for all geriatric patients.

#3 Routine Dentistry

It’s hard to look in your pets’ mouth. And getting a really good look is even harder. When we perform routine dental cleanings, however, the anesthesia allows us to perform a complete oral examination, including under the tongue and way in the back.

#4 At Home Checks

There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be checking your pet on a regular basis for any sign of lumps, bumps, or other lesions. Check them out at least once a month.

#5 “Why wait? Aspirate!”

Dr. Sue Ettinger is a cancer vet who pioneered this brilliant line. It’s her contention that any superficial mass larger than a pea should be aspirated (probed with a needle to identify any unusual cells it may contain). This approach has led to a great many outright cancer cures for pets in my care and continues to be the most successful approach to proactive cancer detection in everyday veterinary medicine.

Do NOT accept no for an answer. Demand that your veterinarian aspirate that mass, regardless of its benign appearance. I, too, have been lulled into complacency by the “boring” appearance of a common-looking, wart-like thing only to be unhappily surprised in the future. It’s your job as your pet’s number-one advocate to be firm.

#6 Chest X-rays

All geriatric pets should have chest X-rays performed as an annual screening tests, in advance of any anesthetic procedure, and any time they experience an abnormal respiratory pattern, including a cough or any other change in their respiratory rate or effort. This is one of the easier screening tests to perform. It is, however, somewhat on the expensive side.

#7 Abdominal Ultrasound

I’m a fan of regular abdominal ultrasounds for older pets. I know it’s expensive but, if you can afford it, or if you have pet insurance for cancer, you should not skimp here! After all, pets can’t tell you they’re feeling off. It’s up to us to find ways to be proactive and this happens to be a non-invasive one.

While I can’t promise to cure cancer with this post, I can promise that some of you will identify things you wish you hadn’t and find ways to address them quicker than you otherwise might. Good hunting!