The First Steps: Cancer Diagnosis In Pets

Although any illness in a beloved pet is stressful for their owner, cancer holds an especially alarming stigma that may be a point of fear for many. However, the veterinary field is continuously improving the treatment of this disease, leading to more favorable outcomes.

an orange tabby way laying on the edge of a tableDr. Christopher Dolan, an oncology resident at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, says that the first step to fixing this problem is diagnosing it and that knowing when to take a pet in for screening can be difficult, as cancer can present in a variety of different ways.

“One of the more common symptoms that owners will report is that their pet is losing weight, even if they’re eating the same amount of food and performing at the same level of activity,” Dolan said. “Sometimes we also see animals that are slowing down and don’t have as much energy as they used to.”

Dolan also says owners may observe more alarming symptoms, such as swollen lymph nodes or limping, before bringing their pet in for a screening. However, the diverse ways in which cancer presents itself means that owners shouldn’t discount less obvious symptoms, such as lethargy.

When pet owners bring in their animal for a screening, their veterinarian will first try to assess the overall systemic health of their animal, which may include less invasive tests such as bloodwork. They may also conduct a physical exam to direct their diagnostics toward any areas that appear to be abnormal.

“Your veterinarian might next try to do some degree of diagnostic imaging, either with chest x-rays or abdominal ultrasound, or sometimes even CT scans or MRIs to see if they find anything alarming,” he said. “If we do see a tumor or something else that’s concerning, we’ll try to get a sample of that to confirm a diagnosis.”

This sample, called a tissue biopsy, is the current standard of care. However, some groups are developing tests using liquid biopsies, or samples of blood tested for circulating signs of tumors in a less invasive procedure. Researchers at Texas A&M, including Dolan and his team, are among those at the forefront of cancer research working to improve the diagnostic process.

“A lot of these tools are still in the research-and-development stage, but I think it’s an exciting path forward,” he said. “We might be able to use them to aid in our diagnosis. We can use them to see what kind of treatments could be useful to treat cancer. We also can use them to monitor response to therapies, or you can even sometimes use them to monitor remission status in these dogs and cats as well.”

For now, pet owners should consult their veterinarians and trust that they will provide the best care available to their furry friend in difficult times. If pet owners are concerned about the health of their animal, taking them in for a visit is the first step to keeping them as healthy as possible.

“If you’re going through this, take it one step at a time. We all know this is a lot of information to take in. Ask questions; talk to your veterinarian about what your concerns are,” Dolan said. “We’re very open to working within whatever the goals of therapy may be. Being communicative with the treatment team or with any of your veterinarians is important, and then just take it one step at a time and trying to figure out what’s best for you and your family.”

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the web at vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to editor@cvm.tamu.edu.