October has a special meaning for many women. It’s a time of year set aside to raise awareness of breast cancer issues. In the spirit of breast cancer awareness month, let’s review how this cancer can affect our pets as well.
Canine and Feline Breast Exam
Our dogs and cats can’t follow the first rule of breast cancer awareness—the self-exam. But, as conscientious pet owners, we can do a breast exam for them.
Dogs and cats have a chain of mammary glands rather than just two breasts, so checking for lumps and bumps takes a little time. Here’s how it works:
- Have your dog or cat lie on their side and gently massage each teat and the surrounding tissue.
- Note abnormalities that can range from smooth pea-sized growths to lumpy larger masses.
Not all breast enlargements are tumors, so don’t be alarmed if you do feel something unusual. Nursing mothers or females in heat will have enlarged mammary tissue due to hormone-associated changes. Also, overweight females may have fatty deposits in the mammary area.
Veterinary Screening for Breast Cancer
Although not all lumps and bumps are actually tumors, they should still be checked out. If you do feel a suspicious lump after examining your pet’s mammary glands, bring her to the veterinarian for further assessment.
Since mammograms are not standard practice in veterinary medicine, your pet’s doctor will carefully examine the mammary chain, feeling for abnormalities and recording the findings. It’s not always possible to rule out breast cancer by simply feeling the lump, so your pet’s doctor may take a sample from the mass and have it analyzed by a pathologist.
Sampling may be as simple as a fine needle aspirate (FNA), in which cells are collected with a small needle and syringe while the pet is awake. Or, a biopsy may be performed in which a small portion of the mass is surgically removed under anesthesia. Depending on your veterinarian’s impression of the mass, he may elect to remove the entire mass without taking a sample first. Either way, portions of the mass are submitted for microscopic analysis to determine the nature of the breast tumor.
Breast Cancer Treatment
Dogs are luckier than cats when it comes to breast cancer. Only about 50% of mammary tumors are malignant in dogs while approximately 90% are malignant in cats. Unfortunately, breast cancer can spread or metastasize to other areas of the body in both species. That means that early detection is vital to stopping the cancer.
Cats and dogs have 8 to 10 mammary glands or teats used to nurse several babies simultaneously. These mammary glands are connected by blood vessels which make it easy for the tumors to spread from gland to gland. Since multiple glands may be affected, surgical removal may involve a large excision area. Your veterinarian may also want to remove associated lymph nodes to further assess the cancer’s spread. He may also advise blood work or radiographs to monitor the cancer’s potential spread to other organs.
In addition to surgical removal of the mass or masses, your veterinarian may advise radiation or chemotherapy to treat the cancer. These options may be expensive but often yield good results and may be covered by veterinary pet insurance plans.
Breast Cancer Prevention
Breast cancer is a tragedy in people and in pets. One way to decrease the risk of breast cancer in dogs or cats is to spay females at an early age, preferably before their first heat cycle. Performing a complete ovario-hysterectomy includes removal of both ovaries and the uterus and reduces the incidence of mammary tumors in pets.
With people and with pets, early detection is key to a successful outcome. During breast cancer awareness month, take this reminder as an opportunity to check your pet’s health. Check your dog or cat for mammary tumors and see your veterinarian if anything appears suspicious.