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Featuring Demian Dressler, DVM and Susan Ettinger, DVM, Dip. ACVIM (Oncology), authors of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide

Diet and Dogs with Cancer

Updated: August 8th, 2019


Dr. Ettinger’s views on diet have changed since she co-authored The Dog Cancer Survival Guide and attended the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Associations’ conference. This is important stuff!

My thoughts have evolved on diet, pets and cancer.

We’ve known for a long time that some cancers may result in potentially significant weight loss. The impact on the dog depends on tumor type, location, and whether it has spread. Cancer patients are known to have significant changes in metabolism of carbohydrate, proteins, and/or fat.

Just cancer itself and/or its treatment can also contribute to weight loss, especially if there is nausea and decreased appetite: The dog takes in fewer calories than its body requires, so the dog loses weight.

In some patients, there is a syndrome is known as cancer cachexia. These dogs have progressive weight loss, in the face of adequate calories and nutritional intake.

In either case, decreased body condition can eventually lead to decline in quality of life and overall survival.

So it is no surprise how important nutrition is in dogs with cancer. The goals of nutritional management in cancer patients are to provide adequate nutrients to aid in recovery, decrease the negative energy balance brought on by cancer cells, and continue to maintain appropriate body mass.

This will ultimately aid in improving their quality of life, possibly increasing the effectiveness of cancer treatment and survival times.

These nutrition goals are not new. For years I’ve included a Nutrition & Cancer information sheet with the handouts I provide at an initial oncology appointment in my practice.

But, after co-authoring the Dog Cancer Survival Guide, and recently attending the AHVMA (American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association) meeting this summer, I decided the handout needed a good update. My thoughts on nutrition have evolved, for cancer patients and all pets. We will get to that soon.

First, a common question I get from readers and in the exam room at consultation:

“Dr. Sue, did my pet’s food cause the cancer?”

In my opinion, it is not fair to blame commercial diets alone for cancer. Cancer is not caused by one thing. Causes include genetics, environmental factors, and toxins. It’s a complicated, multi-step process to turn a normal cell into a malignant cancerous one.

But there are some potentially damaging by-products in dog food.

  • Processing and high heat can alter the food value.
  • Other issues include antibiotic residues, mycotoxins, storage mites.
  • Some ingredients in some diets come from poor quality food supplies with depleted resources.
  • Some chemical preservatives put in foods may have toxicity, such as ethoxyquin, BHA, BHT.
  • Many dog foods have excessive carbohydrates (see below) including corn, soy, beet pulp which may include genetically-modified organisms (GMO) foods.
  • Genetically-modified crops are exposed to increased levels of pesticides.

Sounds pretty bad, right? All these things are not found in every bag or can of dog food, but it is worth looking into the ingredients and where they come from.

And there is an important advantage of commercial diets prepared by a reputable manufacturer: These diets are tested in feeding trials and pass AAFCO standards, so you know they meet the nutritional requirements for adult dogs.

Should I prepare my dog’s food?

Some people choose to prepare a homemade diet. The goal is wholesome unprocessed foods. The benefits/claims include: increased vigor, improved hair coat, decreased allergies, less inflammation, less stool and odor, and weight control.

But you cannot just cook meat for your dog and call it a day. These diets need to be balanced to account for important vitamins and mineral requirements, so your dog doesn’t develop significant deficiencies.

I suggest a reputable source for the recipe. Dr. Dressler has a cancer diet in the The Dog Cancer Survival Guide, and many of my clients use it and are very pleased. If you are interested in cooking, you can try this one.  Pay close attention to the vitamin supplementation recommendations.

Also consider consulting with a veterinary nutritionist to assist in creating a balanced food for your dog – especially important if your dog has other medical issues. Check out ACVN.com to find a nutritionist. Another helpful site to help you is Petdiets.com.

In my opinion, a homemade diet can be a lot of work. As a working mom, getting a homemade diet to the kitchen table for my family on a daily basis is a challenge in itself. I do not home cook for my pets, and I’ll provide alternatives later in this post.

To learn more about Diet for Dog’s with Cancer, get a copy of this informative seminar!

What’s the deal with cancer diets? No carbs, right?

Since cancer cells use glucose (carbs) as an energy source, there is a lot of worry with feeding carbs to cancer patients. The idea behind a cancer diet is low carb, and high in quality proteins and fats. While there is little scientific data specifically showing feeding such a diet helps treat the dog cancer, as long as the diet is balanced, I think there is no harm, in my opinion.

Remember: carbs are not all inherently bad, and some sources contain many valuable vitamins and minerals. Instead of generalizing “all carbs are bad,” I think we should be more critical of the carbs source such as GMO (see above).

For me, the grain-free diets are less important than the source of the grains.

But I don’t think you need to eliminate all carbs.

Although fruits and veggies are carbs, they also provide naturally occurring phytochemicals, flavonoids, and vitamins. Such dietary agents are called chemopreventative because they have potentially cancer-fighting properties that promote cell death (apoptosis) in cancer cells – they help get rid of deranged cancer cells.

Epidemiologic studies in people show protective effects of diets rich in fruits and vegetables, and diets low in fruits and veggies have been associated with cancer risk.

I’m often asked about carrots since they have more carbs that some other veggies. In a 2005 study of Scottish Terriers with bladder cancer called transitional cell carcinoma (TCC), those that got veggies three times a week or more had a decreased risk of cancer, and carrots were the most common vegetable given. In this particular study, Scotties that ate more green leafy vegetables and yellow-orange vegetables had a decreased risk of TCC. (I toss carrots to my Matilda regularly, along with other veggies.)

When one of my patients gets diarrhea – whether due to the cancer, chemo, or medications (like antibiotics), I recommend boiled chicken and rice. A few days of rice is unlikely to make a significant impact on the cancer, but will definitely impact the diarrhea – in a good way. Everything in moderation, as I tell my kids.

I barely have time to cook for myself/my human family. What else can I do?

There is good news here, because newer commercial options are often minimally processed. For example, dehydrated foods use low heat for the drying process and avoid high heat issues. Usually you just add water (perfect for me!). There are complete dehydrated options that include meat, and there are options where you can add your own meat to the mix of veggies. (Both kinds have the needed vitamins, minerals, amino acids, phytonutrients and antioxidants).

One brand to try: The Honest Kitchen. It’s complete and balanced – just add water, made in USA, 100% non-GMO fruits and veggies, 100% organic seeds and grains, and no artificial additives or preservatives.

Note from the Dog Cancer Vet Team: This is the most universally-loved dog food here at Dog Cancer Vet. Dogs seem to love the taste, and we love the ingredients. Here’s a link to the “quality dog foods” section of our Amazon store at Dog Cancer Shop. Be sure to check out the many other flavor combinations!

I don’t want to completely change the current diet. Anything else I can do?

Even if you feed a processed conventional diet, you can do some simple things to improve your pet’s diet, even if it’s only a few times per week.  You can supplement with additional fatty acids and key nutrients. And mix in some “people food”! Think:

  • lean ground meat, poultry
  • plain yogurt, eggs, cottage cheese, ground almonds
  • veggies such as carrots, leafy greens (kale), yams (remember no onions)
  • fruits such as blueberries, melon, mango, peach, dried cranberries (remember no grapes, no raisins)
  • Also NO chocolate, NO macadamia nuts

Get a copy of the Dog Cancer Survival Guide for more helpful tools and information!

Take it slow!

Of utmost importance when changing diets is to do it gradually (typically over 7 to 14 days) in order to avoid complications like loose stools or refusal of the new diet.

The most common source of tummy upset is a sudden change of some kind. If you mix the new food in gradually to your regular food, and increase it over time, your dog will get a chance to get used to the taste and the way it impacts his or her gut. So take it slow!

Your Dog Is Completely Unique

And finally, it is important to remember that every patient is an individual.  One diet may be appropriate for one patient, but not another – especially if the pet is dealing with multiple diseases. Your own veterinarian is the best person to help you create a diet that suits your dog’s individual needs.

Live longer, live well,

Dr. Sue

Discover the Full Spectrum Approach to Dog Cancer

Leave a Comment

  1. Colleen on September 3, 2019 at 9:46 am

    Hello, I have a dog who was recently diagnosed with cardiac and splenic Hemangiosarcoma. Inoperable. As soon as she was diagnosed, I quickly changed her canned diet to a raw/keto diet. She is IV chemo as well. She was doing ok with keto and just became very finicky about what she would eat and what she wouldn’t eat. I purchased Dr Dressler’s book and made the diet/recipe in Chapter 14 over the weekend. She had two meals so far and loves it. I even bought the 8 turkey necks and cooked them up too. I found it challenging to cut up the necks and add them to the mix. I couldn’t but through the bones. I decided to put them in a blender. The blender broke up what was on the outside of the bones but not the bones. I know how important the necks are due to the calcium they contain. So my question is this, how does Dr Dressler advise on breaking up the necks so they can be mixed into the fold more easily?

    • Dog Cancer Vet Team on September 4, 2019 at 6:58 am

      Hello Colleen,

      Turkey or chicken necks should be cooked on a long-slow simmer, as this will make exceptionally tender. From there, you can mash them with a fork, although a blender is fine 🙂

      It can take anywhere from an hour to two hours to cook on barely a simmer, but it will just depend upon how big your necks are. The idea is to use low cooking temperatures, under 300 degrees Fahrenheit, no matter the method you use 🙂

      Most of the neck is cartilage, not bone, and the idea is to give that to your dog. So if you mash or process and there are bony pieces, just take those out before giving it to your dog. There is a lot of nutrition in the water/broth left over, so if you like, you can save that and add to your dog’s food for flavor and nutrition 🙂

      • Colleen on September 7, 2019 at 12:40 am

        Good morning,

        I boiled/simmered the turkey necks for two hours. They were still so hard, my blender couldn’t break them up. In fact i broke my blender’s blades. This weekend when I make the food, I am going to try chicken necks and see how i make out. I do have a question. How many chicken necks do I add to the recipe? The recipe in chapter 14 mentions 8 turkey necks. Turkey necks are bigger then chicken necks. Should I put 16 chicken necks into the recipe?

        I definitely saved the both/water and added it to the dog’s food. She loves this diet.

        • Colleen on September 7, 2019 at 12:43 am

          Hi it’s me again. Belay my last question, I just looked at the recipe and it does say 8 skinless chicken or turkey necks. They are different in size though. Should I still put in 8 chicken necks in this weeks diet?

  2. Belinda on June 4, 2019 at 1:56 am

    He is already on a raw prey-model diet. Will I have to switch him to a cooked diet?

    • Molly Jacobson on June 4, 2019 at 4:48 am

      Dr. D generally recommends cooking food for dogs with cancer, just to be sure there are no pathogens present. This is because ALL dogs with cancer are by definition immune-suppressed. In order to get cancer their immune system wasn’t functioning well AND cancer actively suppresses it. You don’t “have to” do anything you don’t want to do, of course, but the general recommendation is to cook food. Remember, most of our food-related illness outbreaks are from veggies! Meanwhile, if you are feeding raw meat in whole pieces (not ground) you can just lightly cook the outside of the meat to kill anything that might be there, but leave the interior raw. This has always been Dr. D’s advice. He really likes a raw diet in general for healthy dogs, but feels the risks for dogs with cancer go up and outweigh the benefits. Lightly cooking food so that bacteria and viruses are killed is what he suggests. Check chapter 14 of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide for his complete guidelines. https://dogcancerblog.com/book Aloha! Molly (editor of the book)

  3. Terrah on May 30, 2019 at 8:27 am

    Our Staffy just got diagnosed this past friday with HSA, spleen removed wednesday. Couldn’t take out what was seen in 2 liver lobes. Soo now my brain is overloaded with information. Regarding the diet… is it bad to continue on dry? We have used Blue Buffalo for many many years. We were looking it’s info up and it didn’t seem bad, as dry kibble goes. We read one article that it could be ok to do dry in the evening and homemade in the morning? Just worried if the dry is bad?

    • Molly Jacobson on May 30, 2019 at 11:58 am

      Hi Terrah, dry kibble is almost always cooked at extremely high temperatures, which is why Dr. D doesn’t like using it. If your brand is cooked at lower temps (under 300 degrees F) that’s different. However, the fact is that we have to do what we have to do — so if the dry kibble ends up being your best choice for some reason, don’t beat yourself up about it! And if you don’t have the book, get it: https://dogcancerblog.com/book

  4. Will your book include a menu of items and full recipe without supposed to be given? on May 23, 2019 at 6:43 am

    Very interesting article as we have a dog that was diagnosed with anal cancer my holistic vet has given me somewhat of a diet Along with some Chinese herbs acupuncture laser treatment and H03 AER therapybut I’m looking for more items for him as he seems to be very hungry
    Will your book include a menu of items and full recipe without supposed to be given?

    • Dog Cancer Vet Team on May 24, 2019 at 7:31 am


      Thanks for writing. In Chapter 14 of the Dog Cancer Survival Guide, Dr. D provides the recipe for the Dog Cancer Diet that he recommends for most dogs with cancer. He does suggest that you have your vet check over the list to make sure that the ingredients can work alongside your dog’s unique health concerns 🙂

  5. Tom Keliher on April 19, 2019 at 9:24 am

    Oh boy. I just learned that my 8 year old female Beagle has mast cell tumor cancer. I have the book and have been reading bits and pieces. My poor girl already is on a restricted diet because she has food allergies. We learned this after trying to solve horrible problems with her ears, blisters and sores it was awful. After doing a food allergy test we learned she was allergic to almost everything we had been feeding her. So we changed her diet to prescription venison and potato can food and rabbit and potato kibble, and carrot slices. And I have made her dog biscuits from wheat flower, peanut butter, and apple sauce. But now I read that carbs are bad for the cancer. She cannot eat chicken, fish, lamb, corn, rice, peas, milk/cheese. We can give her beef, pork, and turkey in addition to the veterinarian prescription food. So now I am wondering how we are going to feed her a healthy cancer fighting diet. I just started Apocaps too. I am really stressing out…

    • Dog Cancer Vet Team on April 19, 2019 at 10:18 am

      Hey Tom,

      Thanks for writing, and we’re so sorry you’re going through such a rough time. Just breathe. Don’t forgot to take care of yourself while you care for your girl.

      Dr. D recommends a low carb diet. The carbs that are included in his diet are from Low GI grains that break down slowly, so there are no spikes in cancer fuel. He recommends brown rice or steel cut oats 🙂

      But if it’s a choice between your dog eating and not eating, then do what you have to do 🙂

      You can also consult with your vet. They will be able to make recommendations based on your girl’s specific requirements and needs 🙂

      • Tom Keliher on April 19, 2019 at 12:39 pm

        Thank you for the swift reply!

  6. Lynne Wood on March 3, 2019 at 5:54 am

    Thank you.. my dog Daisy Mae a German Shepherd mix was just diagnosed with TCC bladder tumor. I liked your article because I don’t have to cook everything however are there any items I can make a smoothie with so she can lap it up?

  7. Patti M. on December 5, 2018 at 8:48 am

    My 12 year old lab was diagnosed with liver and spleen cancer about 6 months ago. She has had on & off loose stools . I have been making her food and can’t seem to find any information about what carbs are safe to add, that might help firm up her stools. Rice does the trick but I’m afraid that is a bad carb. I already add carrot. Any suggestions?

    • Dog Cancer Vet Team on December 6, 2018 at 9:36 am

      Hello Patti,

      Thanks for writing! We’re not veterinarians here in customer support, so we can’t offer you medical advice. However, we can provide you with information based off Dr. Dressler’s writing! 🙂

      In Chapter 14 of the Dog Cancer Survival Guide, Dr. D writes that you should stay away from high carb veggies like potatoes, carrots, peas, and corn, as these vegetables tend to break down quickly into simple sugars in the body, and may end up feeding the cancer. Shiitake mushrooms, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, cooked mung beans, and red or yellow bell peppers are the veggies that he recommends in the Dog Cancer Diet 🙂

      He also writes that, yes, most grains, like corn or wheat, are not good for your dog with cancer because they provide too much sugar. However, brown rice and oatmeal are both healthy and filling, and there are a number of benefits of adding small amounts to your dog’s diet. The polysaccharides found in bran in these grains may help to fight cancer. They are also lower on the glycemic index, which means they release lower levels of the simple sugars that cancer loves.

      The diet that Dr. D recommends is ideal for most dogs with cancer. You can get a free copy of the Dog Cancer Diet here: https://store.dogcancerblog.com/products/the-dog-cancer-diet

      If your dog can’t tolerate an ingredient, or if it isn’t good for her, or if your vet tells you not to feed it, then exclude it– you should consult with your vet on your girl’s diet to ensure that it will work alongside her current treatment plan, and to get feedback on what to exclude, or include for your girl’s specific needs 🙂

      We hope this helps Patti! 🙂

  8. Karen Rosenfeld on April 23, 2018 at 5:22 am

    my 9 year old golden retriever Daisy has been diagnosed with aggressive oral cancer and she is still eating well. She weighs 70 pounds and I want to know how much meat does she need in the cancer diet per day?

    • Hayley Andrews on April 23, 2018 at 6:07 am

      Hi Karen, Thanks for writing! There is no one-size-fits-all answer on how much to feed your dog, as there are so many factors to take into consideration. Your veterinarian will be able to help you tailor your pups diet to her unique situation.

  9. Scott Croydon on December 22, 2017 at 3:29 am

    In your diet guide you suggest pureeing raw veggies. Could theses additions to diet be juiced instead? Both the separated fiber and juice could be mix back into the food or just the juice for faster absorption of the micro/macro-nutrients. Your thoughts?

  10. Scott Croydon on December 21, 2017 at 8:13 am

    Given that this is a blog for dogs with cancer or for those who want to lessen the opportunity for cancer in their pets, I am confused as to why the suggestion to use carrots in the diet has been made.

    The free except (pdf) on diet and food prep makes the claim that the glucose found in carrots can feed cancer cells. Please advise.

  11. […] But I don’t think you need to eliminate all carbs. READ MORE: “Diet and Dogs with Cancer” […]

  12. Michele D on June 15, 2016 at 11:36 am

    My 12 yo maltese has been diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma and we are completely devastated. He had his spleen removed; no mets. He’s currently undergoing chemo. I’ve bought your book and have been doing all that I can to help him. I’m a little confused about his diet. I don’t have the time to cook, but noticed that you like the Halo canned food. He eats Natural Balance now, so I’m trying to wean him over. Do you prefer Spots Choice (grain free) over Spots Stew (with grains)?
    I’ve also been giving him Im-Yunity. The Apocaps I read are too large to successfully give to small breeds, so I haven’t tried them.
    Thank you for any advice you have.

  13. Lilyw on May 17, 2015 at 3:16 pm

    Dr Dressler’s recipe has been working well for my 3-year-old Golden with osteosarcoma (3 weeks post-amp, one chemo treatment so far–both taken like a champ). Max previously ate raw, prey model. He’s always been an ideal weight, fit, and trim. I tried a The Honest Kitchen but he hated it. He ADORES the cooked formula we are using from the book, but I’m more generous with the fats (he is so active, even now) and I simmer the veggies in the meat/liver braising liquid. I have the time and desire to home cook. It warms my heart to cook for him and watch him delight in the food, and honestly, cooking up a batch every three days isn’t so difficult. I am so grateful for such a straightforward formula that actually has room for a great deal of variety.

    • Scott Croydon on January 3, 2018 at 5:30 pm

      I, too, find it a joy to cook for my pup. Molly is my little buddy of 8 years and I could do no less during this difficult time. She is so excited at meal time and that blesses us both.

  14. Diet and Dogs with Cancer | Pets Teach Us So Much Blog™ on February 19, 2014 at 12:01 am

    […] and Susan co-hosts The Pet Cancer Vet. Susan also writes the Dog Cancer Blog and recently posted Diet and Dogs with Cancer, which I find to be such an important article for my readers that I’m sharing it here as a guest […]

  15. Caro lGanz on January 9, 2014 at 9:01 am

    You have not even mentioned raw diets???? There are commercially prepared raw diets for those who don’t feel they have time to prepare their pet’s food. (My vet even sells these, although I prepare my own.) I have a breed very prone to cancer and feel that raw diet has been very beneficial over the years, including after diagnosis with cancer.

    • Susan Kazara Harper on January 10, 2014 at 10:20 am

      Hi Caro, You’re right, the raw diets weren’t mentioned but there’s a reason. Dr. Dressler discusses raw food thoroughly in “The Dog Cancer Survival Guide” and there is a shorter except at http://www.dogcancerdiet.com. He fully supports good quality raw diets for healthy dogs, but does not recommend them for dogs with an immuno-suppressed condition such as cancer. The differences between a human-prepared raw diet compared to wild-caught raw diet, and the potential addition of microbes with handling are worth a thorough read. I urge anyone using or considering a raw diet for their dogs to consider all the information and make their own informed decisions. What I really love though, is that more and more of us are taking real responsibility for our dog’s nutritious meals!

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