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Many factors lead to rise in diagnosis of cancer in pets

Cancer is a scary word for most of us; it conjures up specific thoughts and images and likely has touched every one of our lives in one way or another.

I think in many cases, cancer is thought of as a death sentence but that is actually not the most common outcome. Certainly, specific types of cancers are deadly but there are many that are treatable and indeed curable if caught in their early stages.

Cancer is a very general term representing a category which includes many specific diseases. These diseases vary greatly in their severity and ultimately in their prognosis based on what specific type of cancer is encountered.

There are hundreds of types. Virtually all of the cancers seen in humans occur in pets and much of our experience with these diseases is shared with our human counterparts.

Some types of cancer are more common than others and there are certain breeds of dogs for example that show higher incidences of certain types of cancer than do other breeds.

Kona fighting lymphoma

This brings us to Kona, a 7-year-old Rottweiler Labrador retriever mix, with cancer of the lymph system. She is being treated by a veterinary cancer specialist. Kona is in her 11th week of therapy and her cancer is in remission.

Allison, Kona's caretaker, wonders if there is a higher incidence of cancer in our area versus elsewhere in California and if so, what might be the explanation.

The incidence of cancers in general in pets in the Central Valley is on the rise. The explanation for this upward trend however is not fully understood. Lymphosarcoma, the cancer that Kona is fighting, is the most common cancer we as veterinarians deal with in our canine patients. Statistically, the incidence of lymphoma is on the rise in valley pets.

I can suggest some possible reasons for this rise, and I suspect there are a multitude of factors involved. One reason is the improvement in our diagnostic abilities as veterinarians. Cases that previously went undiagnosed now are being diagnosed through the use of equipment that was not available in the past. This allows early diagnosis and treatment.

Another factor is the astute nature of pet owners. People are generally very close with their pets and notice more subtle changes, both physical and behavioral.

I do suspect, too, that there are environmental factors that have led to an increase in cancer incidence in our pets, however there is no direct proof at this point. There are some specific correlations that have been discovered, which are not necessarily unique to the valley.

One such correlation is the occurrence of primary lung cancer, an extremely rare cancer in our companions. In households where the caretakers are smokers, the incidence of primary lung cancer in pets is much higher. This is certainly a strong indication of a cause and effect association between lung cancer in companions living with smokers.

As for Kona, my hopes and prayers are with her in fighting her lymphoma. There is indeed good hope for her as this type of cancer is usually quite responsive to treatment, which can provide excellent quality of life, which is what life is all about.

Jeff Kahler is a veterinarian in Modesto. Questions can be submitted to Your Pet in care of LifeStyles, The Modesto Bee, P.O. Box 5256, Modesto 95352.