We share a lot in common with our pets—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Sadly, an ever-increasing risk for cancer is one of these shared traits. But, as with humans, early cancer detection and diagnosis in pets can prevent unnecessary suffering, extend length of life, maintain good quality of life, and improve cancer treatment success.

While a thorough, regular veterinary examination at Greenfield Veterinary Clinic is the cornerstone for complete pet health, monthly at-home assessments can help identify subtle changes that could indicate underlying disease.

Common pet cancers

Although many cancers are tumor-forming (i.e., they produce a palpable mass of rapidly multiplying cancer cells), others are well-hidden, or exist only in the blood—so, observing your pet’s behavior (e.g., appetite, thirst, urination, defecation, energy level), as well as their physical composition, is essential. 

The most prevalent pet cancers include:

  • Soft tissue or connective tissue cancer  — Sarcomas are cancers that begin in the soft tissue or bone, and include melanoma, hemangiosarcoma, and osteosarcoma.
  • Epithelial cell cancers — Carcinomas arise from the epithelial tissue layer, and include skin, lung, and mammary cancers.
  • Lymphatic tissue cancer — Lymphoma circulates in the lymphatic tissue (e.g., lymph nodes), which is found throughout the body. 
  • Blood cancer — Leukemia originates in the bone marrow, but then enters the bloodstream.

At-home cancer check for pets

Although your pet probably already enjoys regular petting, stroking, and snuggling, these everyday physical interactions cannot consistently assess their health. We recommend that you set aside 10 to 15 minutes every month when you thoroughly and systematically give your pet a once-over. Try to evaluate your pet in the same way as your veterinarian, in the same order every time, to ensure you overlook nothing. 

Encourage your pet to relax on their favorite comfy bed or chair, soothing them with praise and petting, light scratching, or massage. Once your pet has settled in, slowly and gently investigate each of the following body systems. If your pet becomes uncomfortable or stressed at any time, take a break or move on to a more neutral area.

  • Face and mouth — Gently hold your pet’s head and observe their face—including eyes, ears, muzzle, jaw, and nose—for any asymmetry, such as swelling, drooping, or irritation. Note any abnormal discharge, especially unilateral (i.e., only present on one side) discharge. Look inside each ear for redness, abnormal tissue, and debris.

If your pet will let you, gently lift their lips and assess the teeth, gums, and breath. Your pet’s teeth should be white with minimal tartar, and your pet’s gums should be a healthy pink—or may be black in dark-coated pets—and smooth and equal on both sides of the mouth, with no obvious swellings or growths. If you can, check the roof of the mouth (i.e., hard palate) for masses or abnormalities. 

  • Lymph nodes — Healthy lymph nodes will feel small and symmetrical, and no larger than a marble for large-breed dogs. Paired peripheral lymph nodes, which can be found under the jaw, in front of the shoulder blades, in the forelimb armpits (i.e., axillary region), and behind the knees on each back leg, are the easiest to palpate. Comparing lymph nodes on each side will help you determine any enlargement. A lymph node that you cannot locate is likely normal size. 
  • Chest and respirationsMove your hands gently over your pet’s rib cage feeling for any lumps or bumps. Also, take note of your pet’s body condition. Can you easily palpate their ribs, or do you have to apply pressure to find them? Has your pet’s weight recently changed? Is their appetite normal?

Observe or palpate your pet’s respirations by placing a hand on their chest—relaxed pets should have effortless, slow, quiet breathing. Note any increased effort, wheezing, harsh sounds, or panting while your pet is resting. 

  • Skin and coat Move your pet’s hair against the grain (i.e., backwards) to examine their skin. Look for any redness, unusual dark spots, hair loss, sores, and bumps on the skin, as well as flakiness or greasiness in the coat. 
  • Abdomen — Gently press along your pet’s abdomen with an open hand. You may find it difficult to tell what’s what, but you can note any sensitivity, unusually firm structures, or distention (i.e., pot-bellied appearance). You may find abdomen assessment easier when your pet is standing.
  • Limbs and mobility — Feel along each leg for swelling, heat, or pain—especially at each joint. Observe your pet’s natural movement, and look for any stiffness, soreness, limping, or hesitation.
  • Rectum and urogenital region — Check briefly under your pet’s tail and around the urogenital area. Note any asymmetry, growths, irritation, unusual odor, or discharge. 
  • Feet and nails — Inspect the digits (i.e., toes), interdigital space (i.e., webbing), and each nail base for swelling or sensitivity. Inspect the nails for breakage or pain. Digital tumors, which are common in dogs, can be highly malignant and often require toe amputation to prevent or limit metastasis.

What to do if your pet’s exam is abnormal

While the Greenfield Veterinary Clinic team urges you to take all precautions for cancer—including maintaining routine veterinary care, and bringing your pet in right away if you find any lumps, bumps, or abnormalities during their monthly exam—you must remember that not all tumors are cancerous. This can help you stay calm and avoid communicating stress or anxiety to your pet. 

If your pet is experiencing a health change, schedule a visit to Greenfield Veterinary Clinic. Our compassionate and knowledgeable team will listen to your concerns, determine a diagnosis, and provide the support and guidance you need to ensure your pet lives an enjoyable and comfortable life.