Of the last six pet dogs that have shared their lives with us, three died of cancer.

Of the last six pet dogs that have shared their lives with us, three died of cancer. It seems to be the norm these days that many dogs will develop cancer. Cancer research shows that it is the number one cause of death in dogs older than 10.

Just as it is in humans, a diagnosis of cancer is not necessarily a death sentence. It is estimated that over 60 percent of malignancies can be cured. In the case of incurable cancers, treatments available today can markedly improve quality and length of life.

Many factors cause what may seem to be an increase in cancer incidence in dogs. In the past, dogs would become ill and pass away with undiagnosed cancer. Twenty years ago, most people did not even know dogs got cancer. Veterinary oncology has progressed amazingly in the past two decades. More dogs are now seen regularly by veterinarians and malignancies identified as the cause of illness. With the use of vaccines and improved preventive care, dogs are living longer and reaching the age of higher cancer incidence.

The cause of cancer continues to be researched extensively and there are still a lot of unknowns. A genetic component makes some breeds more prone to specific cancers. Exposure to carcinogens such as secondary cigarette smoke and lawn chemicals can cause cell mutations that lead to cancer. A complex interaction of genetics and the environment seems to contribute to the development of both canine and human cancers.

There is a new national study being conducted by veterinary oncologists at Colorado State University. This study, funded by The Morris Animal Foundation, hopes to learn more about why some dogs get cancer. They will study Golden Retrievers over their entire lives because Goldens are available in large numbers and have a higher risk of developing cancer. These dogs must be under the age of 2 and have a pedigree that can be traced back at least three generations.
Dr. Rodney Page, principle investigator of the study, said The Golden Retriever Lifetime Study would be the largest and longest dog study ever conducted. They plan to include 3,000 dogs and will track their lives, usually a 10-to-14-year span, for genetic, nutritional and environmental risks. The study will focus on bone cancer, lymphoma and hemangiosarcoma (cancer in the blood vessels). All three of these cancers can be fatal to dogs. They also expect the data to yield information about other dog diseases, like arthritis, hip dysplasia, diabetes, hormonal and skin disorders and epilepsy.

Dog-years are a benefit to researching ailments found in both dogs and humans, because studying a dog for 10 years is akin to studying a human for 60 or 70 years, said Dr. Wayne Jensen, the Morris Animal Foundation's chief scientific officer and executive director. The study will also try to measure factors in a dog's life, such as how fun and an owner's love affect the animal's health and longevity. That will be attempted through questions about the number of children or other pets in the owner's family, the amount of time spent together …and the dog's sleeping spot.

The warning signs of cancer in dogs are very similar to those in people. A lump or a bump, a wound that does not heal, any kind of swelling, enlarged lymph nodes, a lameness or swelling in the bone, abnormal bleeding. Those are all classic signs. However, sometimes there are little or no signs, at least early on. So any time an animal is not feeling well, or there is something abnormal or not quite right, the owner needs to bring it to the attention of their veterinarian.

There are ways you can help improve your dog's chances of beating cancer. Sterilization will prevent several cancers in male and female dogs. Good oral care and inspection are important. Early identification and immediate treatment can markedly increase your pet's chances for survival. This is accomplished by periodic inspection of your pet at home looking for changes or signs followed by regular veterinary check-ups.

Anne Divine is a long time member of LAWS and has volunteered at Animal Control for 18 years. She can be reached at: adivine@kc.rr.com.