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Do Pets Get Breast Cancer? Can You Prevent It?

By: Renae Hamrick, RVT

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Breast cancer awareness month, self breast exams, mammograms, pink ribbons, fund-raising 5Ks... there is much media, education, and research surrounding human breast cancer. Have you ever wondered if this deadly disease can also affect your pet? Should you be checking your dog or cat for lumps in the breast? The answer is YES!

Like humans, dogs and cats can become ill with breast cancer, the cancer can spread (metastasize), and the pet can die. Also like humans, there are steps that can be followed to reduce the risk of cancer. Education and monitoring allow early detection of tumors and increased chances of survival.

Breast cancer in pets is more commonly referred to as mammary gland cancer. This is the most common type of cancer in female dogs and cats. This cancer is very rare in male pets. About 50% of tumors occurring in canine and feline breast tissue are cancerous (malignant). These cancerous tumors can metastasize to other parts of the body, and the longer they are undetected the greater the chances are of this happening.

When a pet has mammary gland cancer, the prognosis depends on factors such as time of detection, type of cancer, the pet's age, and whether there has been metastasis. Although treatment can significantly prolong the pet's life, death is not uncommon in a pet with mammary gland cancer.

Prevention and Early Detection

Like in people, a healthy lifestyle is helpful in a pet's prevention of cancer. A healthy diet and adequate exercise are essential to the health of humans and animals alike. In the case of breast cancer, pets have an extra perk in prevention. Spaying a dog or cat before the first heat cycle (usually around 6 months of age) greatly reduces the risk of mammary gland cancer to less than one percent! Spaying is an easy, important step in prolonging your pet's life. Of course, spaying also comes with many other benefits. Please read Pros and Cons of Spaying and Neutering in Dogs / Cats.

Careful monitoring and observation of your pet is the key to early detection. Make yourself familiar with your pet's normal, everyday behaviors. Make mental note of your pet's eating habits, the way she breathes, her enthusiasm levels with daily activities, her "bathroom" habits, the way she walks or runs, etc. If you begin seeing changes in your pet's actions, a trip to the veterinarian may be in order. Also, pay attention when you pet your dog or cat, and contact your vet if you feel any changes such as masses, growths, or increased bone protrusion (indicating weight loss).

You may feel or see a lump on your pet's abdomen if she has a mammary gland tumor. These tumors usually appear in geriatric years, so pay extra attention to your dog's body when she is older. Other signs of breast cancer in your pet include bruising, ulceration, and/or bleeding of the mammary skin. You may also note pain in the abdominal area, lack of appetite, lethargy, and/or respiratory changes.

Diagnostics and Treatment

If your pet is showing any signs of illness, you should contact your veterinarian. If your veterinarian suspects mammary cancer in your dog or cat, he will probably precede through a series of diagnostics. Some of these diagnostics may include a fine needle aspirate (a needle is inserted into the mass to extract cells for microscopic exam), x-rays, blood work, ultrasound, etc. These diagnostic tools will help your veterinarian determine if the cancer has spread, what type of cancer is involved, and your pet's prognosis.

A mastectomy (removal of the mammary tissue) may be performed whether the tumor is suspected to be malignant or benign. The removed tissue can be fully evaluated and biopsied. Your veterinarian will probably also choose to spay your dog at the time of mastectomy, to reduce the risk of future mammary tumors. Chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and / or an anti-hormone therapy may also be used for cancer treatment.

Spread the Word

As we have all learned with human breast cancer, education is extremely important in prevention. In the fight against breast cancer, most people have a strong understanding of the signs of this disease and what they should do to monitor their own breasts. This knowledge is due to media, research foundations, doctors, and friends spreading the word and encouraging prevention. Let's stand up for pets in a similar way. Send this article to your friends and family; encourage pet owners to spay before the first heat cycle; and next time you wear a pink ribbon to support breast cancer awareness, put one on your dog or cat too!

To learn more about mammary gland tumors in pets, read these other PetPlace articles on this topic Mammary Gland Tumors in Dogs and Mammary Gland Tumors in Cats.


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