When a person hears the news that a loved dog has cancer, it can be very, very difficult to accept. Especially at first.
One reason is that it seems like everything was fine just a little while ago, or maybe even currently. Perhaps a lump was noticed, or maybe a little limp, or a slight cough, or it could have been that there was a lab test that lead to the diagnosis. Maybe there is nothing immediately apparent, from your point of view, that would lead one to suspect cancer.
How is it possible that a dog can seem totally happy, eating, drinking, moving around, being social, and have cancer at the same time?
Well, before you do anything, consider a second opinion. Any professional vet will be okay with this, and it wise to double check to make sure the dog cancer journey is a path you are on.
What about those dog cancer warning signs though? Doesn’t cancer mean there is weight loss, loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, thirst changes, or other signs? If you were to look at some of the lists you see online, you might also expect things like bad breath, yellowing of the skin or eyes, abdominal swelling, difficulty breathing, spontaneous bleeding, difficulty breathing, or an unusual odor. Right?
You are the recipient of incorrect information here folks.
Here’s the real story: these dramatic signs (and we talk about “signs” in veterinary medicine, not “symptoms” like physicians do) in actuality are not seen until very late in the disease process of cancer.
These are not the typical signs of cancer at all. They are the signs of something different, a certain tipping point in the development of cancer.
The lists that you read elsewhere are actually the signs of a stage called “decompensation“. The clearest definition of decompensation lives on Wikipedia:
“Decompensation is the functional deterioration of a previously working structure or system.”
The focus here is on the breakdown of normal functions. When a medical problem is compensated, this means that the body is correcting the effects of the problem so it can function normally. These dogs are acting normally while they have cancer. Our dogs have lots of safety features built in to their physiology. If something is a bit off, these mechanisms kick in to adjust so the body works properly.
However, these built-in safety systems have a limit. They correct up to a certain point, and then the problem becomes too much. Suddenly, there is a shift and the body has an often sudden change which can be seen from the outside as a “sign of cancer”. This tipping point is called decompensation.
The fact that decompensation exists one reason cancer is hard to accept. It explains why a dog can have cancer but not be showing any signs of it (decompensation has not occurred yet), and it also explains why the signs of cancer can appear rather suddenly out of the blue (the dog’s body was not able to compensate for the disease effects any longer).
The take home message is this: test healthy dogs for cancer. Do fine needle aspirates, biopsies, blood and urine tests, X-rays of the chest, and ultrasound the abdomen as your dog ages. Start in the last quarter of life at least annually, if not more frequently. You can get a list of average life expectancies in the Dog Cancer Survival Guide based on either breed or size (for mixed breed dogs).
Best to all,