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The importance of tackling cancer quickly

Dr Irina Gramer, Lecturer in Veterinary Oncology and Head of the Oncology Service at RVC Small Animal Referrals

The COVID-19 pandemic is still taking a terrible direct toll on human populations, but it can also have a terrible impact on pets needing veterinary attention, including for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. 

Like in human oncology, rapid identification, diagnosis and treatment of cancer can make all the difference in the world for the prognosis of pets. But for pets, delays in treatment can be even more dangerous than in humans. This is due to the relatively short lifespan of most companion animals and the speed in which cancers can progress. Waiting another week or so before diagnosis and treatment might not be as significant for a human as a week for a dog, cat, ferret or other small animal. 

When you add in the fact that pets can’t tell you when they don’t feel right and have amazing ability to hide their vulnerabilities, owners avoiding taking pets to the vets as a result of COVID concerns can prove devastating for their animals.

Some owners might not have thought that during restrictions related to COVID they could take their pet to the vets if they had a sense that something is wrong, but it wasn’t an obvious emergency. They also might not have realised that specialist oncology referral services were still working. The stress of not knowing for sure but thinking something is wrong can be harder than getting things checked out and knowing what you are dealing with. Therefore, avoidance can take its toll on owners, as well as pets.

Within the Oncology Service at RVC Small Animal Referrals we have a great deal of experience in dealing with cancers in a whole range of species and an important message we would like to share – and ask colleagues across the pet sector to share to pet owners – is that they shouldn’t hesitate about taking their animals to the vets if they have any concerns. Or at least pick up the phone and tell their local vet about their concerns. In a great many cases it will ultimately turn out to be fine. But if there is a disease process going on invisibly in their pet, getting that diagnosed and starting treatment as quickly as possible is vital.

One of the most common neoplasms in both our dogs and cats is lymphoma, which is a haematopoietic cancer arising from our pets’ immune system, from lymphocytes to be exact. In the majority of cases this cancer is aggressive and progresses quickly. Early detection is of utmost importance. Chemotherapy is usually the treatment of choice and is associated with good response rates, although is not curative.

Common skin cancers in our dogs are mast cell tumours. In some cases, these masses may have been present for months and pet owners notice them to grow rapidly in size and even ulcerate as they progress. In these incidences we would advise contacting your local vet urgently as specialist care may be required to deal with local and possibly metastatic disease.

Other common cancers in dogs include melanoma of the oral cavity and osteosarcoma of the bone. Both are aggressive cancers and often a combination of surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy are required to control the cancer’s progression. In cats we encounter a similar variety of cancers with mast cell tumours arising on the skin and squamous cell carcinomas arising on skin and oral cavity. The latter is an aggressive type of cancer requiring early intervention and specialist care is often essential.

Oncology in the veterinary sector has been evolving as rapidly as in human medicine. Cancer specialists in oncology teams in referral services can be contacted by local vet practices and the case referred to or supported by the specialists. The most important thing is starting the process of investigation so that owners and vets know what they are dealing with.

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