Dog ‘Breast Cancer’: Mammary Disease

Dr. Trisha Joyce, a veterinarian for New York City Veterinary Specialists, still remembers the first dog she saw with mammary disease -- cancer of the mammary glands. The first dog she saw with mammary disease was brought in for lethargy. “We started off with blood work and X-rays, and the X-rays showed metastatic cancer in her lungs, which had begun in the mammary glands.” Since that time, Joyce has counseled dog owners on how to prevent and detect mammary disease, and how to proceed once it’s been diagnosed.

Risk Factors
Mammary cancer is one of the most common cancers among dogs, but it is also one of the most preventable. “First and foremost, spay your dog,” says Joyce. Dogs spayed before their first heat almost never go on to develop the disease, compared to the 25 percent of unspayed dogs that will. Spaying before a dog’s second heat is almost as protective. Generally speaking, malignant mammary tumors are unusual in dogs spayed before the age of 2.

Mammary tumors are most commonly found in unspayed dogs between 5 and 10 years old. Breeds thought to be at increased risk include Boston terriers, cocker spaniels, poodles, English setters, Brittany spaniels, pointers and fox terriers. Male dogs very rarely develop mammary cancer, though it can happen -- and it’s usually aggressive when it does.

When Joyce meets owners of unspayed dogs, she encourages them to perform regular mammary exams at home. The idea is similar to the self-exams that women are taught by their gynecologists to perform in order to become familiar with their own breast tissue. “If you know how your dog’s mammary glands feel when they’re free of tumors, it’s easier to catch a growth if one develops,” she says.

To examine your furry friend, run your hand over the fatty tissue around her nipple. “Just rubbing the belly is too superficial. Squeeze the tissue a little, almost like milking a cow. You’re looking for a lump like a little hard pea, or sometimes bigger,” says Joyce. Finding a lump is a good reason to visit the veterinarian, but it’s not necessarily a cause for alarm. Fifty percent of mammary tumors in dogs are benign.

“If a lump is hard and immobile, I’m more worried than if it’s soft and mobile. But you can never say just by its feel,” says Joyce. Still, other than these telltale lumps, mammary cancer is asymptomatic in its early stages. If it metastasizes, the dog may go on to develop health problems related to where the cancer has spread.

Diagnosis and Prognosis
A biopsy is necessary to determine whether a tumor is benign or malignant, but Joyce says that prompt removal of any mammary tumor is most veterinarians’ treatment of choice, no matter its status. Once the tumor is removed, it can be determined whether it was benign or malignant.

Mammary surgery is less complicated than mastectomy in women, since a dog’s breast tissue is outside of the muscle layer. A dog can be back to its normal activity within a couple of weeks. Prognosis is often good: In 50 percent of cases, the cancer is totally eliminated with the surgical removal of the tumor.

In advanced cancers that have metastasized, surgery may still be performed to reduce the impact of the tumor and improve quality of life. Sometimes, though, a metastasized mammary tumor means it’s time to let your pet go. “The tumors can become ulcerative, making just moving around extremely uncomfortable. Or if they spread to the lungs or the bones and make breathing or walking very hard, the most humane option may be euthanizing,” says Joyce.

Mammary cancer in dogs may be common, but it is preventable and very often even completely curable. With early detection and a relatively easy operation, your dog may be back on its feet in no time, with a chest that is free of problematic lumps.


Coping With the Loss of a Dog

Dealing with the death of a dog is difficult for any owner -- no matter the age of your pet. Dr. Trisha Joyce of New York City Veterinary Specialists, and Dr. Wallace Sife, clinical psychologist and founder of the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement (APLB), offer advice on managing the end, grieving and moving on.

End-of-life Decision-making
While a small percentage of dogs may die peacefully at home at a very old age, most pet owners will at some point be faced with the decision to end their dog’s suffering with a medical intervention. “Sometimes it’s an uncomplicated decision -- say an animal stops making red blood cells,” says Joyce. “But just as often it’s a slow process, like cancer. The dog still has a good day every once in awhile.” In the latter situation, Joyce recommends the following:

  • Make a list of the things your dog enjoys, like chasing a ball or spending relaxed time with the family. Consider whether any of these activities are still an option.
  • Give yourself an objective measure -- a point at which you will let the pet go. For example, “Once my dog has not eaten for three days in a row, I will put him down.”
  • Seek guidance from your veterinarian and pet owners who have had to make that difficult decision. The APLB’s website offers chat rooms that address the topic.

“Owners will say to me ‘I can’t kill my dog,’ but that’s not what euthanizing is,” says Joyce. “I think of it as releasing the animal. It’s the last and most selfless decision we make for a pet we have cherished and cared for.”

Memorializing a Beloved Dog
Deciding how to mark a dog’s passing is a very personal decision. Some pet owners choose the formality of a proper funeral in a pet cemetery, while others cremate and scatter their pet’s ashes. Many veterinary hospitals offer to make a clay imprint of a dog’s paw as a keepsake.

Sife suggests making a contribution to an animal group in your pet’s name, planting a tree in its honor, volunteering with shelter animals, or setting up a memorial on the APLB’s website. “We’ll light a candle for the dog each year on the anniversary of its death,” he says.

Coping in the Aftermath
Everyone deals with loss differently, though dog owners can expect to go through the same stages of grief as anyone who’s experienced the loss of a loved one. Sife suggests reading one of the many books on the topic, including his own, The Loss of a Pet. “The pain is unavoidable, but a book can help to normalize the experience,” he says.

Most important may simply be allowing yourself to grieve. “It can be hard because society doesn’t allow public grieving as much with pets. People feel less comfortable saying ‘I’m going to take a day off of work because I just put my dog to sleep,’ but it’s legitimate,” says Joyce. She adds that some of her clients have found support groups for people who find they need more comfort than they are getting from friends.

Adopting a New Companion
While a pet can never be replaced, at some point many dog lovers may want to bring home a new pet. Sife advises against getting a look-alike. “That may be a way of refusing to accept the loss,” he says. Joyce also advises waiting until the raw part has passed.

Both Joyce and Sife recommend adopting a shelter dog from a local shelter. Saving the life of a dog without a home can be one more way to honor the memory of a best friend that’s passed.

Protect Your Dog From a Deadly Summer Virus

When seven dogs in the same county die of the same thing within two and a half weeks, people tend to take notice. That’s what happened recently in Lancaster County, Pa., as multiple cases of canine parvovirus proved lethal. According to Dr. Katy Nelson, an emergency veterinarian in Alexandria, Va., parvovirus can pop up in bunches, especially in summer.

“Our pets become more active in the summer, and parvovirus can live longer in a warmer environment,” says Nelson. “I’ve seen multiple animals at a time present similar signs -- for example, multiple puppies of the same litter, multiple unvaccinated dogs from the same environment and multiple unvaccinated dogs exposed to an infectious source.”

Transmission and Symptoms of Parvovirus
Parvovirus transmits from dog to dog mainly through direct or indirect contact with the feces of an affected canine, which is why being outdoors often can raise your pet’s chances of getting it. But according to Dr. Patricia Joyce, an emergency clinician at NYC Veterinary Specialists in New York City, it’s not just an “outdoor disease” -- since dogs can track it inside and leave microscopic yet live traces of it all over the floor. “If one dog is affected in a household or kennel where there are several other dogs, it would be easy to spread,” says Nelson.

Like other viruses, parvovirus has mutated over the years since it first appeared in the 1970s. And although the strains can vary from year to year, they’re fairly indistinguishable when it comes to testing and symptoms. The most common symptoms of the virus show up in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, such as severe vomiting and diarrhea, as well as a sudden loss of appetite. Left untreated, it can progress to bloody diarrhea, overall weakness, fever, pale mucous membranes, coma and eventually death. Puppies are particularly vulnerable.

“This virus not only affects the GI tract, as most people know, it affects all rapidly dividing cells within the body -- the bone marrow, the GI lining, the myocardial tissues, and the lymph tissues,” says Nelson. “Severe disease can develop rapidly, and may or may not be reversible with appropriate therapy.”

Prevention and Treatment of Canine Parvovirus
Prevention is simple and relatively inexpensive. “Only unvaccinated or inadequately vaccinated dogs are at risk,” says Joyce. “It's part of the standard vaccine protocol given as three shots to puppies, and as an annual or every two- to three-year booster to adults.” If your dog is up to date on its DAPP vaccine (distemper, adenovirus, parvovirus, parainfluenza), he or she is safe. The cost of the vaccine may be about $30, with variations depending on which part of the country you live in, according to Nelson.

Aside from vaccination, Joyce points out a few other control measures:

  • Clean contaminated areas with a household bleach solution.
  • Regularly disinfect food bowls, water bowls, toys and bedding.
  • Disinfect clothing and shoes.
  • Immediately clean up and dispose of waste outdoors.
  • Prevent your pooch from having contact with other dogs’ feces outdoors (no sniffing).

The cost to treat an affected dog, however, can be significant. Nelson says she has seen it run into the $7,000 to $8,000 range. And it’s not the kind of illness where you can wait and consider your options. “When these dogs hit the doors of your hospital, everything must shift into overdrive. A diagnosis needs to be made quickly and efficiently, severity of the disease needs to be assessed immediately, and treatment needs to be initiated as soon as possible,” she says. “Delaying therapy is in general considered hastening death.”

For those who do lose a dog to parvovirus, Nelson says most veterinarians advise not getting a new puppy for six months. By then, it’s assumed the virus will be cleared from the environment, if proper cleaning and disinfecting procedures have been employed. 

The biggest message that both she and Joyce stress is that this is an easily preventable illness. Vaccination protocols have been extremely successful in controlling the spread of parvovirus. If your dog is not up to date on the vaccine, you should aim to correct that immediately.

Fight Dog Cancer

Aimee Quemuel, a writer based in Ventura, Calif., did not know a thing about canine cancer when her 11-year-old golden retriever, Cody, was diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma (a cancer originating in the lining of the blood vessels and the spleen) in 2006. Yet, because of the decisions she was able to make, Cody lived 17 months longer than his doctors initially predicted.

To help other pet owners in similar situations, Quemuel has written The 42 Rules to Fight Dog Cancer and launched the companion website, Below, Quemuel shares the wisdom of a dog owner who has been there through the story of Cody’s amazing recovery, as well as those of other pet owners she has met in her travels.

Take a Deep Breath
After Cody collapsed on a San Francisco beach while playing, veterinarians at the emergency clinic told Quemuel her dog was too sick to be treated. He had tumors on his spleen, his liver and his heart. “I was encouraged to put him down on the spot,” says Quemuel. In the heat of the moment, she asked her veterinarian what would happen if she didn’t make a decision right then. “We brought a biscuit out and Cody begged for it. He still had life in him.” This, in turn, allowed Quemuel to move toward her next phase: research.

Research Your Options
Cody’s veterinarians were reluctant to treat him. Undeterred, she found a young veterinarian who specialized in angiogenesis therapy, which restores health by controlling blood vessel growth. Cody was also put on a low dose of chemotherapy. Five months later, the tumors on his heart and liver were gone, and he became a candidate for surgery to remove his spleen -- the location of the one tumor that remained. Cody lived a full and healthy life for an entire year after going into remission thanks to the treatment Quemuel found for him.

Fund Your Cancer Fight
When her 6-year-old male yellow Labrador retriever, Sana, was diagnosed with mast cell cancer, Rebecca Clark of Newport, R.I., struggled to pay for the treatment -- including three surgeries -- that eventually put him into remission. When her 11-year-old yellow Labrador, Kibo, was diagnosed with lymphoma two years later, she did not know where the money for treatment would come from.

Clark’s research led her to the Magic Bullet Fund, a group that provides financial assistance to families who are unable to pay for their pet’s cancer care. Having been given four weeks to live, Kibo went on for more than a year after completing treatment. Quemuel also suggests fundraising in the community to pay medical costs. She says, “People love animals and are willing to help, but you have to seek out assistance.”

Help Your Dog Live Life to the Fullest
Your dog’s life does not have to stop with a cancer diagnosis. Lisa Alford of Asheville, N.C., figured this out after her 5-year-old Great Dane, Lucy, was diagnosed with two different types of cancer at once (thyroid and subcutaneous hemangiosarcoma). “I was heartbroken, but I decided early on that I was not going to let the diagnosis spoil my time with her,” says Alford. After Lucy’s successful treatment, Alford and Lucy became regular visitors to their local hospital’s pediatric ward, where Lucy worked as an official therapy dog.

Know When to Let Go
When Cody was 12, he lost the ability to walk, so Quemuel made the difficult decision to put him down. When to do it is a personal decision, but 42 Rules to Fight Dog Cancer suggests that the decision to stop fighting cancer should be made when:

1. Treatment is not effective, and there are no other options with any promise of success

2. Your pet is suffering too much from treatment or the disease

3. Your family or your dog can no longer tolerate the fight

Quemuel has seen firsthand that cancer prognoses are not written in stone, and has experienced the joy that extra months and years spent with a pet can bring.

Diabetes in Dogs: Symptoms and Treatment

Brooklyn-based marketing manager Lori Townsend adopted her long-haired dachshund, Daisy, when the pup was weaned at 10 weeks old. Daisy had no health problems to speak of until soon after her seventh birthday: Suddenly she emptied her water dish more frequently and soaked the bathroom rug regularly with urine. “She hadn’t had an accident since she was a puppy, so I knew something was wrong,” says Townsend. She took her furry friend to the veterinarian, who tested Daisy’s urine and blood and ultimately diagnosed the dog with diabetes.

“Diabetes is pretty common in middle-age dogs,” says Virginia-based emergency veterinarian Dr. Katy Nelson. “Nobody knows why it happens, but the cells in the pancreas that make insulin begin to dysfunction.” Below, Nelson explains the signs and treatment of diabetes mellitus (aka “sugar diabetes”) in canines.

What Is Diabetes Mellitus?
Just as humans get two types of diabetes (type 1 and 2), so do pets. Dogs are more likely by far to have type 1, insulin-dependent diabetes, which results from the body’s failure to produce insulin. Canines are at much lower risk for type 2, insulin-resistant diabetes, in which cells cannot use insulin properly. Nevertheless, about one in every 100 dogs will develop diabetes in its lifetime.

“It does run in families, and certain breeds seem more vulnerable to it,” says Nelson. Cocker spaniels, dachshunds, Dobermans, German shepherds, golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, Pomeranians, terriers and toy poodles top the list of breeds most likely to develop the disease.

What Are the Symptoms?
“PU/PD,” says Nelson, referring to polyuria (urinating a lot) and polydipsia (drinking a lot). “All of a sudden you can’t keep the water bowl full, and a house-trained dog is going all over the place.” She adds that sudden weight change -- loss or gain -- as well as vomiting and diarrhea are additional possible symptoms.

“The symptoms are pretty nonspecific. The most common thing we have people bring their dogs in for is acting strange, and drinking and peeing a lot.”

How Is It Treated?
There is no cure for canine diabetes, but it can be managed to maintain a pet’s quality of life. The treatment for diabetes in dogs involves three parts:

1. Insulin injections. “This is No. 1,” says Nelson. The dog’s insulin must be regulated, which takes a few months of trial-and-error dosing in order to happen. “You need to like your veterinarian, because you’re going to see that person a lot.” Dogs are monitored frequently, often during 24-hour office visits, in the period following initial diagnosis. A diabetic dog requires due diligence from the owner, who most typically must inject the dog twice daily, at fairly precise 12-hour intervals. The needles are small, and when administered in the scruff of the neck while the dog is eating, the dog may not even notice the prick.

2. Diet. Overweight dogs have an increased chance of developing diabetes. However, a diabetes diet does not necessarily mean one that promotes weight loss, just one that is prescribed by the veterinarian. Says Nelson: “I suggest a food with a high-quality, animal-based protein source with an immediate glucose source like rice but also an extended glucose source like corn or barley.” Meals must be provided on a consistent schedule as well.

3. Exercise. Regular exercise can improve insulin absorption in diabetic dogs. However, more is not always better. A diabetic dog should have roughly the same amount of exercise each day (or an increasing amount only slowly) to avoid hypoglycemia. That condition can result in loss of consciousness and the need for emergency treatment. Your veterinarian should supervise your furry friend’s workout regimen along with its insulin and diet.

Townsend’s dachshund, Daisy, just celebrated her ninth birthday. The chronic condition has not been easy for Townsend to contend with. “She definitely needs a lot more care than before she developed diabetes,” says the dog lover, who not only injects her pet with insulin each morning and evening at 7, but also tests her pet’s blood glucose before each meal with a blood glucose meter and urine test strips. Townshend additionally takes Daisy to the veterinarian regularly and is extra-vigilant to ensure her pet does not get into the trash. “It’s hard work, but I wouldn’t treat a member of my family any other way,” says Townsend.