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Why do dogs get cancer?

Cancer is not an unfamiliar term to most of us. For pet owners, a canine cancer diagnosis can be a very serious situation. As the number one killer of dogs, what causes cancer and why is it such a dangerous disease?

What is cancer?

Before being able to comprehend the commonality and cause of cancer, it is best to first understand what cancer actually is. The body is full of cells (upwards of a trillion!), with a multitude of different functions. These cells are constantly replicating and dividing and sometimes during division, the DNA can get damaged. This causes the function of the cell to change from its original purpose. Ultimately, cancer is a clump of abnormal cells that do not have a function. These cells can eventually congregate, forming a mass known as a tumor.

What causes cancer?

There are so many specific causes of cancer that we would be here all day listing them. Therefore, we will just address some of the most common causes in this article.

Sometimes cancer can be caused by a genetic factor. Specific breeds can be more susceptible to getting cancer than others and can significantly impact their lifespan. 

Top 10 dog breeds prone to getting cancer:

  1. Golden Retriever - Hemangiosarcoma
  2. Bernese Mountain Dog - Histiocytic sarcoma
  3. Flat Coated Retriever - Histiocytic sarcoma
  4. Rottweiler - Histiocytic sarcoma
  5. Scottish Terrier - Urothelial carcinoma
  6. Beagle - Urothelial carcinoma
  7. West Highland Terrier - Urothelial carcinoma
  8. Shetland Sheepdog - Urothelial carcinoma
  9. Boxer - Glioblastoma
  10. Boston Terrier - Glioblastoma

Unfortunately any breed, including mixed breed dogs, are susceptible to cancer formation. This is usually due to exposure to elements in the environment called carcinogens. Carcinogens are responsible for, you guessed it, carcinogenesis. Carcinogenesis is the initiation of cancer formation, where normal body cells are transformed into cancer cells. Carcinogenic compounds are responsible for the damage or mutation of DNA that causes cancer. Unfortunately, carcinogenic compounds are everywhere in our daily lives. The severity of a carcinogen can vary, with some causing acute or immediate carcinogenesis and some causing cancer over long term exposure. Since the list of carcinogens is so very long, below is a link to a categorized list of probable carcinogens, published by the American Cancer Society.

How is cancer treated?

Regrettably, cancer can not always be cured, but there are options for treating the disease. Surgical removal of a cancerous mass, coupled with chemotherapy and/or radiation can sometimes help improve cancerous conditions. Chemotherapy is a drug designed to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy drugs are not absolutely specific in targeting cancer cells however. They can also do a lot of damage to other body cells and can significantly impact the heart and liver. This is why cancer treatment can take such a toll on patients. 

Conversely, radiation is a treatment where the patient is exposed to targeted, radioactive particles, in order to attack the cancer cells. Similar to chemotherapy, radiation can also target other healthy cells and cause the patient to not feel so good. These treatments are not 100% effective in curing cancer but they do give the animal the best possible cancer for survival.

How can cancer be prevented?

Since there are so many different causes of cancer, it can be difficult to prevent. The best option is to reduce exposure to carcinogenic compounds, where possible. Feeding a healthy diet, rich in essential vitamins and minerals can also help reduce the risk of cancer. This is because antioxidants found in these types of foods can help repair damage caused by carcinogenic chemicals. Controlling obesity, with adequate exercise can also help reduce risk factors involved with cancer.

Take home message

In conclusion, cancer is a nasty disease which affects 33% of dogs. It can be a life threatening disease with extreme treatments. Presently, the best way to deal with cancer is to prevent it with a healthy diet and exercise.

Golden Retriever low in energy laying down on plaid patterned bed
Golden Retriever low in energy laying down on plaid patterned bed

View Sources

ACS. Known and Probable Human Carcinogens. (2019).

Byrd, David R., Michael A. Carducci, Carolyn C. Compton, A. G. Fritz, and F. L. Greene. AJCC cancer staging manual. Edited by Stephen B. Edge. Vol. 7. New York: Springer, 2010.

Morrison, Wallace B. Cancer in dogs and cats: medical and surgical management. Teton NewMedia, 2002.

Sonnenschein, Elizabeth G., Lowrence T. Glickman, Michael H. Goldschmidt, and Linda J. McKee. "Body conformation, diet, and risk of breast cancer in pet dogs: a case-control study." American journal of epidemiology 133, no. 7 (1991): 694-703.

Dobson, Jane M. "Breed-predispositions to cancer in pedigree dogs." ISRN veterinary science 2013 (2013).

Rowell, Jennie L., Donna O. McCarthy, and Carlos E. Alvarez. "Dog models of naturally occurring cancer." Trends in molecular medicine 17, no. 7 (2011): 380-388.

Perry, Michael Clinton, ed. The chemotherapy source book. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2008.

Baskar, Rajamanickam, Kuo Ann Lee, Richard Yeo, and Kheng-Wei Yeoh. "Cancer and radiation therapy: current advances and future directions." International journal of medical sciences 9, no. 3 (2012): 193.

Greenwald, P., C. K. Clifford, and J. A. Milner. "Diet and cancer prevention." European journal of cancer 37, no. 8 (2001): 948-965.
Ross, Sharon A. "Diet and DNA methylation interactions in cancer prevention." Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 983, no. 1 (2003): 197-207.

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February 20, 2024
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