CSU veterinarians: Be on the lookout for 10 early warning signs of pet cancer

To mark Pet Cancer Awareness Month in May, veterinarians at Colorado State University described early warning signs and cutting-edge treatments to help pet owners act quickly in thwarting the leading cause of death in dogs and cats.

As many as 50 percent of pets die of cancer, according to experts at CSU’s Flint Animal Cancer Center, which is renowned for pioneering knowledge and treatment technologies that help animals with cancer – and are extended to human cancer treatment.

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Despite its prevalence, cancer in pets often is a treatable or even curable disease with specialized cancer care, CSU veterinarians said. As is the case in humans, treatments for pets include chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery.

The CSU Flint Animal Cancer Center, part of the university’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital, annually evaluates some 1,800 cases and is marking its tenth year of providing a range of advanced diagnostics and treatments to pet patients from around the world.

The top 10 early warning signs of pet cancer, according to the center, are:

• Abnormal swellings that persist or grow
• Sores that don’t heal
• Weight loss
• Loss of appetite
• Bleeding or discharge from any body opening
• Offensive odor
• Difficulty eating or swallowing
• Hesitation to exercise or loss of stamina
• Persistent lameness
• Difficulty breathing, urinating or defecating

A pet with any of these signs should be seen by its veterinarian as soon as possible to take advantage of treatment options, CSU specialists said.

For one of CSU’s current patients – a 6-year-old Border collie mix named Dakota – vomiting blood was the alarming first sign of a tumor in the dog’s nasal cavity, said her owners, Diana and Dorothy Karnes of Pueblo. Dakota’s veterinarian confirmed the problem, and the Karneses were referred to the Flint Animal Cancer Center for advanced radiation treatment.

It’s a potentially life-saving trip they said they’re happy to make for a dog that is part of the family.

“She’s such a happy, lively dog, and we don’t want to see her sick anymore,” said Diana Karnes, who recalled adopting Dakota when she was the sole pup remaining in a box of free puppies at a shopping center, and nearly was taken home by someone else. “It was meant to be. She became part of the family by fate.”

Nasal tumors can be the most difficult form of pet cancer to treat with radiation, said Dr. Susan LaRue, head of CSU’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital Radiation Oncology Service.

“The close proximity to the eyes and brain makes the growing tumor a threat to these vital organs. To avoid these sensitive areas while delivering high radiation doses to the tumor, everything must be precise, to the millimeter,” LaRue said.

To provide such precise treatment, the Flint Animal Cancer Center uses a rare, $3-million technology called the Varian Trilogy Linear Accelerator.

The machine provides image-guided radiation treatment with sub-millimeter accuracy and delivers seven beams of radiation that are perfectly calibrated to an individual patient. Each beam can be split into several others, delivering radiation at different angles, intensities and frequencies to attack a tumor. The system’s ionizing radiation damages a tumor’s DNA, killing tumor cells during cell division.

“We can match the shape of the dose with the shape of the tumor,” LaRue explained.

“This technology allows us to zero in on the tumor and treat patients in as few as three days. It also allows us to investigate the strange biology of cancer cells, and to translate our veterinary cancer research and practices for application to human cancer patients,” she said. “The success of our program has led other schools to commit to better equipment.”

For now, CSU has the only Varian Trilogy Linear Accelerator of its kind in the United States. The Flint Animal Cancer Center has treated 1,200 small animals with the advanced technology.

The Trilogy’s unique features, which allow quick and precise radiation doses that spare surrounding structures and tissues, have also expanded the types of cancers that can be treated with radiation therapy, LaRue said. For instance, osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer, was considered resistant to radiation; now local tumor control is greater than 90 percent, she said.

The Varian Trilogy Linear Accelerator exemplifies the technologies CSU veterinarians are using to vastly improve cancer knowledge and treatment in all species. The cancer center’s mission is promoted with the phrase, “one cancer, one cure.”

For the Karneses, their dog’s radiation treatment with a cutting-edge technology provided optimism about Dakota’s future. The collie underwent treatment in Fort Collins in three days and has not demonstrated negative side effects.

The dog’s nasal tumor is expected to shrink during the next four months. As they wait for follow-up assessment, the Karnes family members said they are just glad to have their playful dog back home.

For more information about cancer in pets, visit www.csuanimalcancercenter.org.