One of the best ways to help ensure a better prognosis for a dog that develops cancer is to make the diagnosis early, while the tumor is small and before cancer has had a chance to spread. This, of course, is easier said than done but is certainly not impossible.
The key is to first recognize a change, either in how your dog appears externally or how he is acting/feeling, then choosing to act on it (call your vet) if it doesn't resolve in a day or two.
If you find that your vet is not able to determine an exact cause for your dog's problem (ie. cannot make a diagnosis), seek out the care of a specialist. If cancer is suspected, see an oncologist. If your vet is not sure why your dog isn't feeling well, start with an internist.
If a dog has cancer, he will have the best prognosis if a diagnosis is made quickly. If you find yourself repeatedly seeking help for the same thing and it isn't improving, get a second opinion.
Many types of cancer cause obvious external changes that are pretty easy to recognize (like a limp or a skin mass). The easy part is noticing that something is different with your dog. The more difficult part is following through with making an appointment with your veterinarian and obtaining a diagnosis in a timely manner.
Life is busy, this is a fact. However, if you notice that your dog develops a new skin tumor or any concerning change, call and schedule a visit with your vet - don't wait weeks or months to do this.
If your dog develops a skin tumor be certain not to ask your vet to simply to "look at it" because that won't give you an accurate diagnosis. They'll probably tell you that it looks like a benign lipoma, but there are many times when they're going to be wrong. Instead, simply ask your vet to sample (aspirate) the mass so you'll have an accurate diagnosis. If the aspirate is inconclusive, follow-up with a biopsy (or see an oncologist).
Many cancerous tumors look exactly the same as benign tumors - the only way to distinguish between the two is with a simple needle aspirate. This is the best way to get your dog appropriate care.
You might say, well what about the skin mass that my dog has had for years - what do I do about that? It's probably benign, right? Well, if you don't have a diagnosis from an aspirate, you should still get one. Some cancerous tumors stay small in size for years, until the cancer cells mutate and become more aggressive. Don't assume that just because a tumor has been stable for years it's benign. I recommend having all lumps and bumps evaluated with a needle aspirate.
You can also ask your vet to create a body map. This is a sheet of paper with an outline of a dog on it. We use body maps to measure and map out every single skin mass on a patient. Each mass is numbered, dated, and measured. Once a diagnosis is obtained for each tumor, that is also placed next to its respective number. Using a body map will help you and your vet keep track of your dog's masses over time.
If your dog develops a limp, which doesn't improve after a few days of rest (and possibly pain meds), have your vet take sedated x-rays for more information. You want to determine if it is simply a soft tissue injury, cranial cruciate ligament tear, etc., and rule out bone cancer.
If your dog is lethargic or his appetite is off, don't ignore it. Your vet will likely start with routine blood and urine tests. If those tests are normal and nothing abnormal is noted on physical exam, additional testing is needed, which might include abdominal ultrasound. Keep in mind that for the best outcome a timely diagnosis is ideal. Try to obtain a diagnosis within 1-2 weeks. If you find that your regular care provider is not able to obtain a diagnosis, again, consider a consultation with a specialist.
There is now a new test called the Nu.Q cancer screening test. This blood test is meant to be used in dogs that appear healthy, but might still have cancer. The best time to do this test is during a yearly exam. This test can be done routinely starting at "middle age". In breeds with a high risk of cancer, some dog owners might elect to perform this test every 6 months. It currently does a great job of detecting both hemangiosarcoma and lymphoma, but can detect other cancers as well. You can learn more about this test on episode 35 of my Your Dog Wants You To Know This! podcast. On the episode, I interview Dr. Heather Robles, one of the co-creators of the test.
A comprehensive guide to early cancer detection is included in The Happy Healthy Dog Guide
Dr. Lori Cesario
Board Certified Veterinary Oncologist
PS: I'm happy to now offer online oncology consultations. Learn more about how this service can help by visiting the Vet Cancer Consultants site.
A few other articles you might enjoy...