The 2015 Pet Guide: A Golden Opportunity

Major study looks at cancer risk in canines.

Dr. J. Armando Villamil hopes a new study provides answers about canine cancer.

Roberto Gonzalez

More from The 2015 Pet Guide

The 2015 Pet Guide: Finalists
The 2015 Pet Guide: Foster Angels
The 2015 Pet Guide: A Golden Opportunity
The 2015 Pet Guide: The Survivors
The 2015 Pet Guide: Pet Events
The 2015 Pet Guide: Managers of Merriment
The 2015 Pet Guide: Pampered Pets

As veterinary medicine moves slowly toward individualized cancer care—tailoring treatment to each pet —no study is considered more important than the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study, now under way.

Recently, the Morris Animal Foundation, a global nonprofit based in Denver, completed enrolling 3,000 Golden Retrievers, who will be followed over a decade for genetic, environmental and nutritional risks for developing cancer. Roughly half of Golden Retrievers develop the disease in their lifetime.

“It should give us some answers,” says Dr. J. Armando Villamil, a medical oncologist with Affiliated Veterinary Specialists, referring to the observational study, the largest ever undertaken. In the meantime, pet owners need to watch for subtle cancer signs, primarily odd behaviors and changes in activity, especially in their elderly pets, he says, or less-subtle ones—new masses and lumps arising on the skin and elsewhere in the body.

Dr. Sarah Boston, a surgical oncologist with the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Florida, agrees.

“Owners can do body checks of their dogs,” much as they might check for breast cancer or prostate cancers in themselves, she says. And with cats, because injection-site cancers caused by certain vaccines “remain quite common, we advocate vaccinating below the knee or elbow.” Lumps remaining for more than a month should be checked out, she says.

Also, according to Boston, a canine vaccine against melanoma has been commercially available for several years now, including one under development at UF. “I think you’re going to see this [approach] in other cancers, as well,” she says. Considered immunotherapy, the vaccine works with the pet’s own immune system to attack the disease.

Most cancers in animals, at least initially, involve surgery, except for lymphomas, where chemotherapy is considered the first-line treatment. But, unlike people, cats and dogs tolerate these cancer drugs far better, veterinarians say, largely because they are given in much lower doses to sustain quality of life, rather than cure. As a result, side effects are few. 

Whatever medical path pet owners choose, however, Villamil and other say, most pets do well once cancer treatment begins, adding months, sometimes years to their lives.

No one was more surprised than the owners of “Huck,” Melissa and Carl Wolary of Oviedo, who dipped into their retirement cash to pay $9,200 for his treatments, so far, with $4,000 going to surgery. 

“I had gotten to the point where I thought he’s going to be gone,” Melissa says of her black Labrador, diagnosed with cancer earlier this year. “I’ve come to the conclusion that we pay all at once for our pets and the cost is high. But it’s worth it!” 

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