The Truth About Pet Cancer

The Animal Cancer Foundation estimates that nearly 12 million pets are diagnosed with cancer each year. Cancer is never easy to talk about—which is exactly why pet parents need to strike up a conversation before their pet gets sick.

Dealing with cancer can be emotionally and financially overwhelming. As the head of a pet health insurance company, I see the effects of pet cancer on families every day. As a pet parent, I felt its devastating effects after losing Petplan’s Dog-in-Chief, Wellington, to cancer in 2014.

Despite the pervasiveness of the disease, there are still many myths out there about pet cancer. In the spirit of helping the tens of millions of pet parents on this journey with their pets—and for the many millions more who are lucky enough to have healthy pets—here are some truths everyone who loves a furry friend needs to know about pet cancer.

Myth 1: Only dogs get cancer.

The truth is, cats are at risk, too. Cancer can strike at any age in any pet—especially if there are heightened risk factors such as obesity or secondhand exposure to cigarette smoke. In fact, 50% of dogs and 30% of cats will be affected by a tumor in their lifetimes.1

Myth 2: Veterinarians can’t do much for pets with cancer.

Cancer is an emotionally loaded word, but a diagnosis doesn’t have to mean the end for a sick pet. Many pet cancers are very treatable and it is possible for the disease to go into remission when diagnosed and treated early. Even pets with cancers that can’t be cured can and do benefit from treatment; they usually experience longer lives and improved quality of life. And while fighting cancer isn’t cheap (the average cost2 to treat cancer is $1,950 for dogs and $2,751 for cats), pet insurance can pay the majority of the bill.

Myth 3: Treating my pet’s cancer will make him or her suffer needlessly.

The majority of us have seen a loved one battling the effects of cancer firsthand, and it is devastating to watch. Fortunately, pets don’t experience side effects from chemo the way humans do—some never feel sick at all. Radiation carries the risk of some localized side effects like hair loss and tissue damage, but with technological advancements like cyberknife radiation, and holistic therapies like acupuncture, even these are being minimized.

Myth 4: My dog is “safe” because he’s purebred and there’s no cancer in his lineage.

While I wish it were this easy to avoid cancer, it’s simply not. Cancer is a complex disease with both genetic and environmental effects at play. It is caused by genetic mutations, the majority of which aren't inherited.

Myth 5: There's nothing I can do to prevent cancer in my pet.

There’s no way to prevent cancer 100%, but you can do plenty to reduce your pet’s risk. Be sure your pet is spayed or neutered to reduce mammary and prostate cancers. Maintaining a lean weight can help avoid cancer (as well as a host of other health complications), and feeding a high-quality, nutritionally complete diet can also help keep your pet healthy.

The first rule when it comes to pet cancer is don’t panic. We’re in a position to know more about this disease and how to treat it than ever before. We now have dedicated oncologists for our pets that can help advise pet parents on the most up-to-date treatments available.

Your pet depends on you to keep him healthy. While you can’t take away all risk of cancer, you can protect him with annual veterinary exams (twice yearly for older pets), a financial plan for cancer treatment should he ever need it, and by getting the facts straight when it comes to fighting the disease.

1 source: The Cancer Center at CARES

2 source: Petplan claims data 2015

3 source: University of Pennsylvania pet owner survey

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