The big C

Paw Prints is a new column by Society Hill Veterinary Hospital’s Dr. Claudia Casavecchia, who will give pet owners all the information they need to parent healthy and happy pets. Paw Prints will run the third week of every month.

Many of us have either been directly or indirectly touched by cancer. It is one of those words you never want to hear coming from a family member or your doctor. But how do you receive it when delivered by your veterinarian?

Animals, just like people, are afflicted with life-shortening cancerous conditions, which in many cases a pet owner and sometimes even the pet’s doctor are unable to detect. Animals are so good at hiding disease that many times we miss the subtle changes in their eating habits, weight or energy. But veterinarians, who recommend twice-a-year wellness exams for companion animals, are hoping to assist pet owners in early detection of these unwanted conditions.

Cancer, also referred to as neoplasia, is defined as an abnormally high growth of new cells that interfere with normal organ or bodily functions or appear as a mass. Researchers are constantly seeking the how and why of cancer to learn what might trigger those cells to go off track in replicating or what stimulates them to grow at extraordinary rates. In some forms of cancer in pets, known risk factors exist. For instance, early ovariohysterectomy has been shown to decrease the risk of mammary carcinoma in dogs and cats. The benefit of spaying your companion to prevent this form of cancer decreases as the pet ages. In other instances, there are no known triggers or risk factors, and we can see pets of all ages afflicted with cancer.

There are many forms of neoplasia. Some we can actually feel, such as lumps and bumps on the skin or in lymph nodes, while others we can detect with blood testing, such as leukemia. But all too often, the abnormal cells are hiding within the pet’s body systems. The cells that stay within the organs are very good at growing undetected until there are enough of them to compromise the normal function of the pet’s lungs, heart, liver, spleen, kidneys, intestines, bone marrow, thyroid, adrenal gland and brain.

Being a pet owner myself, I have been touched by cancer twice with my special feline friends, one at 10 and the other at 11. Oliver was my 11-year-old orange Maine Coon, rescued from a shelter in Wayne, who gradually was not eating as much as he usually did and seemed to be sleeping more. I checked his weight and he had lost 1.5 pounds since his last visit with his doctor six months earlier. Blood testing was performed to see if there were any organ changes, and he had an abnormally low red blood-cell count. Anemia can be caused by many conditions, but I knew he was not losing blood so what was keeping his count so low?

Radiographs did not reveal any masses in his spleen nor other organs, so that left either viral-based anemia or a problem with him making cells. His feline leukemia virus test and feline immunodeficiency tests were negative. Testing his bone marrow was the next step and revealed that his bone marrow did not have enough starter red blood cells. There were abnormal cells noticed in his bone marrow but they could not be categorized as neoplastic, and instead were called paraneoplastic. This condition is also seen in humans, where the body has a response to a cancer that triggers the immune system to attack its own cells. I tried chemotherapeutic medications to treat him but his condition continued to deteriorate, and he was assisted.

My other Maine Coon, 10-year-old Teddy, was rescued out of a dairy barn in Wayne. He was known to have a heart murmur for several years, not atypical for his breed, but he did not have any heart disease based on his ultrasound. One morning, he started coughing, a symptom sometimes associated with heart disease. Radiographs were taken of his chest and revealed numerous masses in his lungs. He passed away less than 36 hours after the masses were found. An autopsy revealed that he had primary lung cancer, a very rare condition, as most lung masses are known as metastatic masses, spread from cancer located elsewhere in the body.

Advances in pet health care have allowed animals to live longer. Veterinarians are therefore seeing more cancer in their patients because most mutation of cells occurs with aging. There are many organizations and universities studying the causes, preventions and treatments of cancer in companion animals. As with almost all disease processes, early detection through biannual examinations and being educated about how to monitor your companion at home permits for a better chance of treatment and, in some cases, a cure.

During your pet’s next health check-up with your veterinarian, ask what you can do to better monitor your pet for early signs of possible cancer. In some cases, your early detection could save your pet’s life.