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ASK THE VETS: Be on guard against cancer in pets
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ASK THE VETS: Be on guard against cancer in pets

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Dr. Betty Myers, Dr. Rachel Dodson, Dr. Hunter Hamblen and Dr. Michael J. Watts

From left, Dr. Betty Myers, Dr. Rachel Dodson and Dr. Hunter Hamblen pose with Dr. Michael J. Watts. The foursome is the vet staff of Clevengers Corner Veterinary Care in Amissville.

DO pets get breast cancer?

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Breast cancer is one of the many cancers that affect both people and pets. Since many projects begin with animal studies, support for breast-cancer research often benefits both people and pets.

Dogs are particularly prone to breast cancers. With each and every heat cycle, a dog’s body goes through a 60-day hormonal stimulation of the mammary tissue. This constant stimulation for four months a year leads to very high cancer rates. Fortunately, 99 percent of canine breast cancer can be prevented by spaying dogs before their first heat.

While breast cancer is less common in cats, it does occur. The risk is also drastically reduced when cats are spayed. Also, just like in people, reproduction and nursing reduces the risk of breast cancer in intact dogs and cats.

One ongoing effort to learn more about cancer and its root causes is the Morris Animal Foundation’s Golden Retriever Lifetime Study. This is the largest and longest effort undertaken to better understand cancer in dogs. It involves following 3,000 privately- owned golden retrievers for 10 to 14 years.

Participating veterinarians collect blood, hair and toenail samples during examinations. Owners and veterinarians also regularly submit health, nutrition, and lifestyle information to the study database. Golden retrievers were selected due to their popularity and their high incidence of cancer. Researchers hope to use this information to improve our knowledge of cancer in all breeds of dogs—and indeed in all animal species, including people.

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Of course, one of the keys to successful cancer treatment is early detection. Maybe not so coincidentally, October is also National Pet Wellness Month.

In human medicine, it is widely accepted that time and money spent on wellness programs drastically reduces the pain and high cost of serious illness while increasing the effectiveness of treatment. The same is true for our animal patients.

The American Veterinary Medical Association, American Animal Hospital Association, American Association of Feline Practitioners, and the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association all strongly recommend examinations every six to 12 months for all pets. Many of these organizations also advocate regular wellness screenings including complete blood counts, blood chemistry panels, urinalyses, intestinal parasite checks and heartworm screenings.

Ask your veterinarian for specific recommendations for your pets. More importantly, if it has been more than six months since your pet’s last checkup, schedule a wellness visit with your family veterinarian today.

When I took my dog in for a vaccine, the veterinarian found a small lump located on her lower shoulder area. It’s only about the size of a blueberry. The doctor took a needle aspirate and told me it is a mast cell tumor. Do you think it is worth having the mass removed and biopsied?

I absolutely recommend removal of the cancerous tumor. Mast cell tumors are very common, accounting for about 15 percent of all skin lumps in dogs. Although they feel innocent, mast cell tumors can be fatal and could spread through the blood without appearing aggressive on the outside. The good news is that many can be cured with surgery alone—but only if caught early.

After removal, it’s important to have the mass biopsied to stage it and to be sure it was all removed. If the biopsy comes back as Grade 1, then most will be cured with surgery alone. Grade 2 masses with wide surgical margins also have a good prognosis, although they can return and still have the potential to have already spread. If the surgical margins are not clear by a wide margin, most oncologists recommend additional treatment, including oral medications. Grade 3 tumors are likely to have already spread and warrant additional diagnostics and treatment.

Three-quarters of mast cell tumors are either Grade 1 or Grade 2. Unfortunately, there is no reliable way to grade the mass ahead of time. They generally look harmless, but certainly can be real trouble.

Dr. Michael J. Watts, a veterinarian, operates Clevengers Corner Veterinary Care in Amissville.

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