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Pet 411: Being proactive when it comes to cancer

As a pet owner, don’t you sometimes wish you had a crystal ball that allowed you to see any medical problems your furry friend might develop so you could preemptively solve them?

While veterinary science has made dramatic improvements in the past 10 years, unfortunately there’s still no way to accurately predict your pet’s medical future. However, the more you know, the more proactive steps you can take to keep your dog or cat healthy for as long as possible.

This subject was brought to my attention by a couple who wrote to me about their golden retrievers. Years ago, they lost one of their sweet dogs to cancer. They wanted to know if there was a DNA or blood test to see if a pet either has cancer or the propensity toward cancer.

For help with this question, I turned to Dr. Rachel Rasmussen, who is board-certified in veterinary oncology and works in our Rockville, Maryland hospital.

According to Dr. Rasmussen, there isn’t currently a blood test or a DNA screen that will predict whether a pet will get cancer. In fact, there’s nothing like that currently available for humans, although DNA screening tests are currently being developed. It’s possible that such a test may exist for humans within the next few years.

To that end, the Morris Animal Foundation is currently conducting the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study, which is working to identify the nutritional, environmental, lifestyle, and genetic risk factors for cancer and other disease in dogs. You can read more about the study here.

So what can you do in the meantime? While some breeds have a propensity toward cancer (including most large breeds, such as golden retrievers, German shepherds, Bernese mountain dogs, and boxers) don’t get too fixated on that, Dr. Rasmussen said. Studies have shown one out of every four dogs will develop cancer, so it’s in every dog owner’s best interest to be aware of the risks.

That means taking your pet to the veterinarian for regular check-ups – once a year for younger dogs, and twice a year for senior dogs. And since most types of cancer can’t be detected through bloodwork, Dr. Rasmussen suggests talking to your veterinarian about diagnostic imaging, which is a more effective way to identify tumors or other abnormalities. This could include chest X-rays and abdominal ultrasounds.

It’s also important that dog owners recognize the potential warning signs for cancer. Among them are abnormal swellings that persist or continue to grow, weight loss, sores that won’t heal, loss of appetite, difficulty eating or swallowing, and persistent lameness or stiffness.

Thanks so much to Dr. Rasmussen for the excellent advice! While there’s no crystal ball, the next best thing is to increase your awareness about canine cancer and to keep seeing your family veterinarian on schedule. These steps will help you detect cancer early, which increases the chances for a successful treatment outcome.

Thank you also to our readers for bringing this subject to our attention. We hope you have many more happy years with your golden retrievers.

Have a question about your pet that you’d like answered? Write to Dr. Cathy Meeks at pet411@bluepearlvet.com. She’d love to hear from you, and your letter may be picked for an upcoming Pet 411 column.