Cancer in Pets: a Silent Killer

“I’m so tired today. I want to play and romp with my humans, but when I run, I start to cough and have trouble catching my breath. I sure hope this goes away soon…” — ailing pet

We wear multi-colored ribbons in support of cancer victims, but did you know that cancer is the leading cause of disease-related death in dogs and cats as well?

According to the Animal Cancer Foundation, approximately 1 in 8 pets will get cancer at some point in their lives — a heartbreaking statistic which shows most animal owners have likely come across this silent killer. However, there are a number of signs that responsible pet parents can be on the look out for when it comes to their animals. Cancer is a time-sensitive disease, so the earlier it is caught, the better chances of your companion receiving effective treatment.

What Does Cancer in Pets Look Like?

According to the ASPCA, “Cancer is a class of diseases in which cells grow uncontrollably, invade surrounding tissue and can spread to other areas of the body. As with people, dogs can get various kinds of cancer. The disease can be localized (confined to one area, like a tumor) or generalized (spread throughout the body).”

Treatment options can vary, but much like cancer in humans, certain options can have negative side effects, which is why some pet parents may opt for not treatment at all. In these instances, pain relief and palliative care is strongly encouraged.

How Likely is my Pet to Get Cancer?

Cancer can show up at any point during a pet’s life; however, is is particularly common in older pets; unfortunately, the symptoms of cancer are often mistaken for old age, and are left subsequently left untreated. In addition, certain animal breeds are more prone to specific kinds of cancers, including the predisposition of breast cancer in female dogs and feline leukemia in mature cats. But just like in humans, there is no one single or preventable cause of cancer in animals, although a healthy diet and exercise regimen can greatly increase your pet’s quality of life and better enable them to fight the disease during treatment.

7 Early Warning Signs of Cancer in Pets

Key to catching the warning signs of cancer in pets — or any illness — is to know your pet before something goes wrong. Make it a habit to check your animal during their regular grooming sessions, as well as to know their habits so that you can recognize any unusual changes in behavior or appearance that may signal a larger issue. Here are 10 things to look out for:

Lumps or Bumps

Of course, just like children, animals can get goose-eggs from rough play, but if you notice a lump on your pet that isn’t going away or is growing in size, it’s time for a visit to your veterinarian. He or she can assess the area and may even opt to take a biopsy of it to determine whether or not it is cancerous.

Odd Smells

If your cat or dog has a strong odor coming from its mouth, ears, or anal region it could be an indication of something more serious. Let your veterinarian check any area that may be causing the offensive smell to rule this disease out.

Unusual Discharge

If your pet has prolonged diarrhea, blood, pus, vomit, or other abnormal discharges coming from his or her body, it’s time for the professionals to have a look.  Not all discharges are dangerous, but it’s better to err on the side of caution and get your pet to a vet as soon as possible to rule out anything life-threatening.

Wounds that Do Not Heal

In healthy pets, open wounds will heal quickly with proper treatment. If your pet has a sore that continues to weep or will not heal, this may be a sign of clotting and/or blood cell count issues, which among other less serious issues, can be a sign of cancer.

Weight Loss

Animals that are feeling ill will oftentimes refuse to eat. If your beloved pet is losing weight or if you notice a change in its appetite, call for an appointment to get him or her checked over. Of course not all appetite changes are cancer-related — a simple upset stomach is often the cause, but seek professional help just to be sure if eating patterns shift in conjunction with any other symptoms.

Difficult or Heavy Breathing

Labored breathing or coughing can all be signs of an illness lurking in your pet. Occasionally, loss of breath will also lead to lethargy or depression. If your once fun-loving or rambunctious pal is now struggling to breathe in any way, take them to a veterinarian.


While animals can not openly tell you when they are hurting, they can show signs of being in pain through unusual or excessive mood changes, drooling, panting, or aggressive sensitivity (nipping, growling, yipping) when you approach the area of causation. If you suspect your pet is in pain, always get to your professional as soon as possible.  It may not be cancer-related, but just like with infants who may not be adequately able to express what is wrong, medical attention is always advised to get to the root of any underlying issues.

As Pet MD states, these tips are only symptomatic guidelines for the development of cancer in animals, not a diagnosis. However, the key to catching any illness in your pet early on during its treatable stages is change, which is why consistent, lifelong veterinary care is crucial to maintaining and monitoring your pet’s health. So don’t panic if you see one or more of these symptoms — only your vet can make a proper diagnosis.

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