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Pet Cancer Awareness: Signs & Symptoms

This article shared by pet food specialists, Hills Pet Nutrition Australia, aims to raise awareness surrounding pet cancer and how best to look after an ill pet, with specific tips and advice from a Veterinarian on how to recognise the signs and symptoms of cancer and how to appropriately care and support your vulnerable pet in their time of need.

Pet Cancer Statistics

Just like humans, our beloved pets may also sadly experience cancer and, whilst it’s a topic that may not be often spoken about, it is prevalent in the daily lives of many. It is estimated that:
  • One in five cats (20%) will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifespan.
  • One in four dogs (25%) will get cancer in their lifetime.

How to Recognise & Check for Cancer in Pets 

Key Signs & Symptoms

Spotting feline and canine cancer can be difficult and will likely depend on many factors depending on what body system the cancer is attacking or arising from. 

Cats will often hide their symptoms so changes may be more subtle. The signs of cancer are not specific but if you notice any of the below it may indicate an underlying disease process and it is a good idea to book an appointment with your veterinarian to get your pet checked.

✔️ Lumps, bumps and abnormal skin lesions

✔️ Weight loss especially if rapid or no obvious change in appetite

✔️ A significant change in appetite or change in eating style such as eating messily or chewing with one side of the mouth

✔️ Lethargy or lack of interest in exercise

✔️ Vomiting and diarrhoea

✔️ Changes in breathing pattern

Checking for Lumps or Bumps

The appearance of a lump or an irregular skin lesion is always something that should be checked by your veterinarian as it may be a sign of some forms of cancer.

Yet regularly checking your dog or cat is one proactive approach you can take to know what is ‘normal’ and therefore, will help you to spot changes more quickly. It is generally recommended to perform a skin check once a month for your pet.

‘Nose to tail’ is the best approach as it is important to be systematic in your approach. It is best to run your fingers against the natural “grain” of the fur so that you are physically checking the skin with your fingers (as well as visually for short haired pets):

1. Firstly, you should start by checking your pet's head. Pay close attention to the muzzle areas especially around the nose and mouth, around the eyes and the ears, don’t forget to check both sides of the ears especially in those floppy eared breeds

2. Secondly, move your hands down around the chest, and then over both the fore and hind legs, slowly making your way to the underside of their tummy.
For females, closely check the mammary area and nipples to ensure there are no abnormal lumps or discharges.

3. Finally, it is important to check along and under your pet's tail as well as around their anus.

Schedule a check-up with your veterinarian if you notice anything unusual.

Dr Jessica Mills, Professional Consulting Veterinarian at Hill’s Pet Nutrition Australia said:

"The fact is, that cancer can impact our pets similarly to humans, by causing pain and discomfort, diminishing their quality of life and potentially shortening their lifespan. Yet, as with many serious health issues, early detection and intervention are key, and early diagnosis can dramatically improve the prognosis for our furry friends.

Cancer care should be top of mind serving as an important reminder for pet owners to be vigilant about any changes in their pet's behaviour such as mood, appetite and energy levels, or any physical changes such as lameness, vomiting or the appearance of lumps and bumps.

This isn't meant to alarm pet owners but to encourage them to familiarise themselves with their pet's “normal” look and feel, as well as to know how they usually act and behave. This knowledge can help pet parents quickly identify any deviations from what is normal for their pet which may ultimately lead to saving their pet's life in the future. If you notice any changes or are concerned about your pet’s health for any reason, then we encourage you to contact your local veterinarian and schedule an exam as soon as possible. It is also important to keep on top of regular and routine veterinary visits as this helps with early detection of diseases.

Pets with cancer are often inappetant or have experienced weight loss and this can impact both their quality of life and the efficacy of the treatments they may undergo. When your pet is living with a serious illness, such as cancer, malnutrition can impact their whole outlook. 

As part of our purpose to help enrich and lengthen the special relationships between people and their pets, Hill’s Pet Nutrition has launched the Prescription Diet ONC Care range of foods. This powerful nutrition is designed to nourish and nutritionally support pets living with serious illnesses such as cancer. When we keep them eating, we keep them fighting - for those magical moments, chances for connection and the adventures that still await.

Hill’s Prescription Diet ONC Care encourages an enthusiastic appetite and food intake with tasty ingredients and an easy-to-chew kibble. It is rich in calories and contains highly digestible protein and fat to help maintain muscle mass. 

It also includes prebiotic fibres as part of the ActivBiome + ingredient technology to help nourish your pet’s microbiome and support healthy digestion.”

Top 10 Tips to Support Pets' Cancer from a Veterinarian:

Caring for a pet with cancer can be challenging but manageable with the right approach. Here are ten tips to keep in mind when caring for your sick pet:

1. Consult Specialists: Your trusted veterinary healthcare team is crucial to help support both your pet and yourself at this critical and unfamiliar time. Your local veterinarian may advise a referral to a specialist veterinary oncologist to help tailor treatments and care plans specific to your pet’s type of cancer and their needs. Knowing that you are in the hands of the experts will help provide comfort and reassurance as well as better outcomes.

2. Comfortable Living Space: Ensuring that your pet has a comfortable, quiet place to rest and recover is essential to supporting any pet with cancer. You may also need to consider their current sleeping arrangements. For example, they may need a lower bed or basket to stop them from jumping up. Alternatively, a warmer blanket to snuggle into may help keep them warm supporting those with compromised health in the cooler seasons.

3. Emotional Support & Love: Spending quality time with your pet and checking up on them more often throughout the day will help provide comfort and reassurance. Research shows that simply petting your dog or cat lowers the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and social interaction increases the levels of oxytocin, a feel-good hormone. This can help both you and your pet feel better at this stressful time.

4. Maintain a ‘Normal’ Routine: Keep in mind that routines can and will change throughout illness and treatment and so it is important to be flexible with daily life. Yet keeping to some form of routine with the inclusion of some of your pets' old or regular activities where possible, will help provide a familiar structure and keep them mentally healthy.

5. Moderate/Adjusted Exercise: Exercise is important for our sick pets to ensure both muscle mass and cardiovascular health are maintained where possible. You may find that you need to adjust activity levels according to your pet's current energy and comfort levels. Depending on the severity of their illness, a simple walk around the garden or house may provide the fresh air and stimulation an unwell pet needs.

6. Hygiene Practices: You should try and avoid letting your pet lick your face or hands, particularly when undergoing treatment - with a vulnerable immune system you may subject them to various bacteria that can further compromise their health. Noting more regular hand washing and cleaning of your pet's bed and belongings will help reduce bacterial exposure build-up and risk of infection.

7. Nutritional Support - Nutrition is crucial for critically ill pets to maintain calorie intake, muscle mass, and energy levels. A food like Hill’s Pet Nutrition Prescription Diet ONC Care, designed specifically for such pets, will encourage eating and help nutritionally support and nourish pets with serious illness, such as cancer.

8. Regular Health Check-ups: Staying on top of your pets' appointments and check-ups is key to maintaining care and supporting your pets throughout their illness. You should also maintain their regular preventative healthcare regime, such as parasite protection and vaccination, following discussion with your veterinarian.

9. Explore Support Services: It can be challenging caring for a sick or vulnerable pet on your own. Depending on your own health and personal circumstances you may want to seek support from family or friends to help with the demands on care and attention your pet deserves.

10. Stay Hopeful: Whilst a cancer diagnosis for your dog or cat can be extremely difficult to hear, it is not necessarily the end for your pet. Advances in cancer treatment and research are ongoing and many pets can go on to lead long and happy lives, both during and post-treatment. Maintaining optimism, and a positive mental attitude is vital for the best possible outcomes.

Full guides and resources can be found here:

Pets undoubtedly make our lives joyous and they are by our side through all of life's unexpected events - it's our responsibility to provide the care and love they need, during theirs.

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