What to Know
The risk for developing breast cancer at any age is closely linked to a pet’s exposure to estrogen and progesterone in the first few years.
Each October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month compels many of us to think of people whose lives have been impacted by breast cancer. In the U.S., roughly one in eight women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer at some point during her lifetime. While the public is becoming increasingly aware of the importance of early detection and preventative care, many pet owners are surprised to learn their pets may also be at risk for developing breast cancer.
Breast cancer is rare in male cats and dogs, but sadly, very common in females of both species. It is generally diagnosed at roughly ten to eleven years of age. In dogs, the most commonly affected breeds are Poodles, Dachshunds, Spaniels, Rottweilers, Boxers, Golden Retrievers, and German Shepherds. Feline breast cancer is most often seen in Siamese, Persian, and other Asian breeds. It is unclear whether or not breed-specific genetics play a role, or if the act of breeding these popular fan favorites simply creates a skewed sample.
The risk for developing breast cancer at any age is closely linked to a pet’s exposure to estrogen and progesterone in the first few years of life. The best way to limit your pet’s exposure to said hormones, and thus reduce the risk of breast cancer is to have her spayed. The risk of breast cancer in a dog who is spayed before her first heat cycle is a mere .5%.
After her first heat cycle, the risk increases to 8%, and rises to 26% after the second cycle. A mature, unspayed dog is seven times more likely to develop breast cancer than her unspayed counterparts! One study suggests certain, large-breed dogs may be less likely to develop orthopedic problems later in life if spaying is delayed until they are fully grown. Since there is a certain degree of risk associated with both choices, it is important for these dogs’ owners to seek help from their veterinarian when grappling with this particular decision.
Otherwise, unless you are a licensed, registered breeder of health-tested, purpose-bred cats or dogs, you should spay your pet sooner, rather than later to reduce her chances of developing breast cancer. Obesity during a pet’s early development can also increase her risk, so ask your veterinary team if your young pup’s weight is conducive to her long-term health.
If your veterinarian is concerned your pet may have breast cancer, he or she may recommend lung x-rays, blood analysis, or other diagnostic tests to ascertain whether or not the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. Once this has been determined, the next course of action will likely be surgical removal of the tumor or tumors.
(Since dogs and cats have large litters, they have anywhere between six and ten breasts. It’s not unusual for veterinarians to diagnose tumors in multiple breasts). Surgical excision is delicate work, as great care must be taken to navigate around glands, veins, and soft tissue. Once tumors are removed, they should be sent to a lab to be closely analyzed by a board certified veterinary pathologist.
This report will tell your veterinarian what type of cancer your pet is fighting, and whether or not the the entire tumor was removed. From here, your vet can assess the likelihood of recurrence, ascertain whether or not further treatment is necessary, and determine your pet’s long-term prognosis. To reduce the chance of recurrence, the patient is nearly always spayed at the time of surgery.
Like many of the medical conditions which affect our pets, breast cancer is largely preventable. Spaying our pets, and maintaining them at a healthy weight can go a long way towards keeping them free of a disease that is sadly, all too common.
Dr. Kupkee is the lead practitioner at Sabal Chase Animal Clinic.
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