Golden Retrievers and Cancer | Part II | Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, and other Important Information
Two kinds of cancer are of particular concern to owners of Golden Retriever dogs. These include hemangiosarcoma, which affects around 20% of Golden Retriever dogs, and lymphoma, which affects about 12.5% of dogs. Half of all cancers suffered by Golden Retriever dogs fall into one of these two categories. Hemangiosarcoma is often, however, misdiagnosed. Technically, hemangiosarcoma refers to a cancer of the endothelial cells, the cells that line blood vessels; however, these blood vessels can be found anywhere in the body, and often this kind of cancer starts in organs with lots of vessels, such as the liver, spleen, or lungs. Veterinarians may often use casual terminology like “liver” or “spleen” or “lung” cancer rather than specifying “hemangiosarcoma,” which is an unfortunate and inaccurate use of language that further clouds dog owners' understanding of cancer. The difficulty of diagnosing hemangiosarcoma correctly is often compounded by its relative lack of symptoms: often, dogs suffering from this condition do just drop dead unexpectedly, as they have received no diagnosis or treatment, and have manifested no other symptoms. Luckily, all this is about to change; researchers supported by GRCA/GRF have developed a blood test that can diagnose the presence of hemangiosarcoma in your Golden Retriever dog, allowing you to forgo a costly and painful surgical diagnosis and begin providing your Golden Retriever dog with the treatment he or she needs earlier on. Less complicated but still important to look out for is lymphoma, which affects your dog's lymphatic system.
What causes cancer? Scientists are divided on the mechanisms by which cancer appears in the canine body. Some researchers suggest that cancer has a major genetic component. Indeed, the prevalence of cancer in one specific breed of dog – the Golden Retriever – does suggest that in part, at least, the disease is genetic. But often cancers occur in genes that are not “germ cells” (like the sperm and egg, or any other genetic material that can be passed down to offspring) but rather “somatic cells,” which have no contact with the next generation of dog. Cancer is thus not like “blonde hair” or “blue eyes,” a genetic marker that is directly handed down. There is plenty of evidence for environment factors at work as well in the causation of cancer. The New York Times suggests a number of ways of limiting your dog's environmental risk, including not smoking near or around your dog, feeding your dog a diet that is high in cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli or cauliflower), avoiding your dog's contact with pesticides and – perhaps most surprisingly – limiting your dog's diet during puppyhood to avoid your dog growing too quickly. A Golden Retriever dog should weigh only 9.5 pounds at eight weeks of age, and 30 pounds at 20 weeks – over-feeding your dog and making him grow faster might be unhealthy for your dog and contribute to the onset of cancer later in life.
But, alas, we cannot control everything, and even if you do all you can to give your Golden Retriever dog a healthy and happy life, cancer is still a likelihood in your dog's life. Be vigilant about early warning signs of cancer – the sooner you treat many forms of this illness, the more likely it is that you can lengthen your dog's life and/or make it more comfortable. Be on the lookout for any changes in behavior, including vomiting, lethargy, a running nose, a change in gait, frequent drooling or dislocation of teeth, discharge and an unpleasant sell from the ear area, a change in appetite, or diarrhea. These can be signs of cancer – as well as of other illnesses – so get your dog to the veterinarian right away. The most telling sign may be a new bump or lump or the body, or a change in size, color, or consistency of an existing bump. Take your dog to the veterinarian right a way for a more detailed diagnosis.
Even if the diagnosis is the dreaded cancer, however, that does not mean that you are out of options. Depending on the type of cancer, surgical treatment may be an option, as may radiation or chemo-therapy, although this also depends on the health and constitution of the dog. Regardless of whether you pursue a course of curative or palliative care, focus not on your dog's disease but your dog's life. Your dog may not understand his or her diagnosis, but he will respond to your mood and manner. If you begin to treat your dog differently, or express stress when the two of you are together, your dog will pick up on this and sense the tension, which can only hurt his or her physical and emotional state. Instead, make the best of the final months, weeks, or years of your dog's life by spending quality, positive time together, making sure that your dog knows how much you love him or her. While cancer can be a scary mystery – just remember, your dog is the same adorable pooch you once fell in love with at the breeder's or shelter: positive thinking may not cure cancer, but it can give your Golden Retriever dog some truly special final memories.