Dr. Nick Thompson, founder & director of the Raw Feeding Veterinary Society reveals what to do after the dreaded ‘C’ diagnosis.
You felt a lump or heard a cough or saw a wobble in your Westie, and you took them off for a check-up. At the back of your mind was the possibility that there may be something sinister at play. But they’d been so well up until then.
Tests done, nip to the vet for the results and boom, they say the dreaded words, “It’s cancer.” And everything changes. Frantic Google searching, ringing friends, considering second opinions, thinking of specialist vets. Everything is a blur.
This guide is to help you at this overwhelming point and is a roadmap to help you in this new world of cancer, neoplasia, oncology, and metastasis.
Cancer in Dogs
Unfortunately, cancer is widespread in dogs in developed Western countries. It is the number one cause of mortality, above traffic accidents and infectious disease. Approximately three in ten dogs in the general population will get some form. One in two dogs over the age of ten will contract cancer.
Breeds like our wonderful Westies (sadly afflicted by Lymphoma and transition cell carcinoma of the bladder all too often), bouncy Boxers and anything-but-flat, Flat-Coated Retrievers, and Golden Retrievers often draw the short straw. Your dog’s age and breed can often be a big clue in working out which cancer type they may have. Vets are good at this sophisticated pattern matching.
Conventional Options in Canine Cancer
Once your vet or your cancer specialist (your oncologist) has made a definitive diagnosis, perhaps with staging (tumour-typing or assessing the danger or how spread the tumour is), they will discuss the following:
Surgery – some cancers, called ‘benign’, do not spread. If they are removed, they never re-appear. Spreading cancers are called ‘malignant’. If you catch them early, before spread, surgery can help prognosis (outlook). They may need some added chemotherapy in case some spread has taken place. Oncologists are risk averse.
Chemotherapy – a word dreaded as much as cancer. Good news, though; most dogs do much better than us on chemo. And they don’t lose their hair! Chemo comes in three types: weekly intravenous injections at the vet’s, tablets given at the vet’s, or tablets given at home weekly or daily. Often dogs on chemo have to have their poop picked up meticulously and children kept away to avoid toxic waste products in the poo.
Unfortunately, rapidly dividing healthy cells like bone marrow, which produce red and white blood cells, can be affected as collateral damage side-effects. Patients are carefully monitored during chemo and usually bounce back after the chemo hit.
Radiotherapy – the use of focussed high-energy electromagnetic radiation (like X-rays) to target and kill rapidly dividing cells, mostly cancer cells. The beam damages by destroying cellular DNA. Healthy cells injured near the tumour site repair much more quickly than cancer cells.
Immunotherapy – the newest of the cancer therapies. Some centres in the UK may not offer this option, but it’s always worth discussing. It’s a bit technical but have a Google on ‘monoclonal antibodies’ and ‘tumour agnostic treatments’ like ‘checkpoint inhibitors’. There are also cancer busting ‘oncolytic virus therapies’, ‘T-cell therapies’ and cancer vaccines. Panic not: your oncologist will be able to explain all if any of these novel therapies are available and applicable.
Complementary Options Available to Your Dog
You always have options in the early stages of cancer. Your vet may not be familiar with complementary therapies, but many practitioners are. Here are some links to allow you to broaden your choice horizons:
Raw feeding vets: www.rfvs.info
Herbal vets: www.bavh.co.uk
Ketogenic diets: www.ketopetsanctuary.com
Homeopathic vets: www.bahvs.com
Acupuncture vets: www.abva.com
Diet: Nutrition can dramatically influence cancer outcomes (see the Ketopet Sanctuary site). The food you choose for your dog in health and disease is vital.
High-carb dry kibble is an ultra-processed food (UPF), like human junk food. The UK NHS says each 10% increase in UPF in the diet in humans is associated with a 12% increased risk of any cancer and 11% increased risk of breast cancer in older women.
We pet owners are generally encouraged by food corporations to feed our dogs 100% UPF kibble and tins for their entire life. I’ll leave the maths to you.
My recommendation in cancer cases is for a raw or, at a push, a lightly cooked (‘fresh’) commercially available food. If you are making the diet from scratch at home, that’s fine, whether raw or ‘fresh’.
Please take advice from your raw food supplier, a nutritionist, or a vet familiar with the formulation of these foods. The two latter are few and far between, I’m afraid. Discuss with them how practical it might be to consider a ‘ketogenic diet’. It sounds fearsome, but if you’re feeding raw, you’re probably more than halfway there already. See the reference above to Ketopet.
Oncologists don’t like feeding raw food to dogs on immune-suppressive chemo or radiotherapy. There is no science to suggest raw is more of a risk than walking in the park, coming home and licking your paws, but sometimes I lightly cook raw food to keep the peace.
Supplements to discuss for cancer support are CV247, medicinal mushroom and CBD products. Also mention vitamin B17, C, D and E, omega-3 oils and Selenium.
Another cancer-risk area is, for me, the unnecessary use of pharmaceuticals. Monthly wormers can be exchanged for herbal products and three-monthly worm counting of stool. ‘Don’t drug de-worm unless you have worms’ is an easy maxim. Equally, if your dog hasn’t got fleas or a tick problem, avoid tablets (however convenient or meaty), drop drop-ons and side-step sprays. Use essential oil-based products and food-grade Diatomaceous Earth where possible. Use pharmaceuticals only where you have to.
Other Support Therapies
Herbs – turmeric, ginger, garlic, Withania, Astragalus, Echinacea, ginseng and milk thistle can all find a place in cancer support therapy.
A Marmite subject but worth discussing with a homeopathic vet for cancer patients.
Can be a no-no in cancer. Discuss the pros and cons with your acupuncture vet or go to the ABVA for advice.
Healing, Bowen therapy, Tellington Touch and Reiki – the hands-on, energy therapies. These can be very helpful to both you and your dog!
If you’re lucky, you got in early and therapy was successful, and your dog is now cancer-free. Well done! If you’re less lucky, you began therapy as soon as you were able, and things are much better, but the outlook is not for a full life, as you would expect without cancer in your dog. If you are very unlucky, your dog is declining in health despite the best conventional or complementary efforts. I’m sorry.
Let me offer just a few thoughts on how to cope with decision making at this stage of the journey that I’ve picked up over the years:
Use your head and heart
Communicate early with your vet any concerns or anxieties.
Go through the nuts and bolts of how your dog may be put to sleep. Do this as early as possible if the outlook is anything but excellent.
Whichever decisions you make, you will always second-guess yourself.
There is no perfect time; just avoid avoidable problems.
Deciding put-to-sleep a day too early is better than a day too late.
Luck plays a part in every part of the process. But remember what Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favours the prepared mind.”
Cancer will befall three to five out of every ten dogs in the UK. It pays to know the facts. If your dog has just been diagnosed, there are many conventional, nutritional, and complementary options to explore and discuss with your support teams. Time is critical, but time is also important to reflect and choose wisely the most comfortable or least uncomfortable route for you both.
Cancers and their treatments are like no other diseases. You and your dog have embarked on a unique journey requiring strength, reflection, and appropriate action. And, perhaps, most of all, it requires love.