Does your pet have cancer?

May 15, 2013 at 9:00 a.m. ET

Charlene Melson suspected something was wrong with her 17-year-old cat Kayleigh but wasn't prepared for her veterinarian to give the family pet a cancer diagnosis. She was devastated, but Melson's commitment to caring for her cat saved Kayleigh's life.

Resting cat

Cancer happens to people and cancer happens to pets. May is Pet Cancer Awareness Month, and we at SheKnows want you to know the signs of this potentially fatal disease so you can catch it early and weigh your options for cancer treatments.

Pay attention to your pet

One of the best ways to catch cancer or any pet ailment early is by really getting to know your cat or dog and being able to tell when they are acting out of sorts. Melson says, "I had family over for Christmas dinner and knew that Kayleigh had not been herself, as she was very quiet and lethargic and wasn't eating much." These symptoms could be related to less dangerous illnesses, but instead of ignoring her pet's odd behavior Melson took her cat to the vet.

10 Common signs of cancer in pets

According to Dr. Gerald Post, one of the few board-certified veterinarian oncologists in the United States, about one in four dogs and about one in five cats will get cancer. The pet medical expert, who was recently recognized by New York Magazine as one of the best veterinarians in the tri-state area, shares the most common symptoms of cancer in pets.

  • Swollen lymph nodes -- Enlarged lymph nodes may be a sign of lymphoma, says Dr. Post. "These 'glands' are located all throughout the body but are most easily detected under the jaw or behind the knee."
  • Lump - - Any lump on a pet that is rapidly growing or changing in texture or shape should have a biopsy.
  • Abdominal distension -- If your pet's belly becomes enlarged rapidly, it could be from a mass or tumor in the abdomen or indicate internal bleeding.
  • Chronic weight loss -- Dr. Post warns that when a pet is not on a diet but losing weight it could be a sign of cancer.
  • Vomitting or diarhhea -- Tumors of the gastrointestinal tract can often cause chronic digestive distress.
  • Unexplained bleeding -- Bleeding from the mouth, nose, or gums or blood in a pet's urine or stool that is not due to trauma should be examined.
  • Cough -- Though a dry, non-productive cough in pets can be caused by many other illnesses, Dr. Post says this type of cough is a common sign of lung cancer.
  • Lameness -- Unexplained lameness (especially in large breed dogs) is a very common sign of bone cancer.
  • Straining to urinate - Straining to urinate and blood in the urine usually indicate a urinary tract infection, however cancer of the bladder may be the underlying cause.
  • Oral odor - Oral tumors can cause a foul odor as well as disrupt your pet's normal eating habits.

Pet cancer treatments

"The most common treatments for pet cancer are surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and immunotherapy," Dr. Post explains. "Typical costs for these treatments range from $200 to $2000 per month, and with new types of chemotherapy and radiation therapies the costs are decreasing considerably." For some pets, treatments are successful, but for others the main goals are improved quality of life. For Melson, cost was not a factor in choosing treatments for Kayleigh. She did a lot of research and asked a lot of questions. "I certainly could not easily afford the surgery and numerous appointments, but  [two years later] Kayleigh is happy, healthy, and cancer-free," she adds.

Preventing cancer in pets

Dr. Post says that veterinarians recommend the same cancer prevention tips for pets that are given for people. He recommends feeding your pets a high quality food like Blue Buffalo, regular exercise, keeping your pet at a healthy weight, and making routine veterinarian visits. Regular grooming can also help detect health problems in your pet. "Groomers [trained in detecting health issues], such as those at Petco, have saved the lives of numerous pets by noticing both gradual and rapid changes in a pet’s physical health," he adds.

More pet health tips

Why you need pet medical insurance
Everyday items you didn't know could hurt your pet
Pet safety in your car

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