Pet Connection

The Big C

CANCER IS NEVER GOOD NEWS, BUT MANY PETS ARE NOW LIVING LONGER AND LIVING BETTER

When my dogs get older, they get twice-yearly wellness checks. I have come to believe that catching changes and problems early is not only better for my pets, but also for my budget. Recently, after just such an exam, I got the news every pet-lover dreads: There's a spot on the X-ray of my 7-year-old flat-coated retriever. The suspicion? Cancer.

Yes, I'm devastated. But because the problem was caught on a routine checkup when my dog has no symptoms or other problems, there's a good chance it's not the death sentence it used to be. That's because canine cancer is more treatable than ever before, with many dogs living for years after their diagnosis with an excellent quality of life.

Of course, it's far better to avoid cancer completely, if you can, and here are some ways to reduce the risk:

-- Adopt a healthy dog who fits into your lifestyle. If you're considering a purebred dog, know that cancer hits some breeds more than others -- in breeds such as Golden and Flat-Coated Retrievers and Bernese Mountain Dogs, the chances of a dog being diagnosed young with cancer is very high indeed. Mixed breeds can and do get cancer, of course, but in those breeds with elevated cancer risks, the situation is more likely "when" your dog will get cancer, not "if." While reputable breeders are working hard to reduce those numbers, some now believe sweeping change in breeding practices to introduce "outcrosses" to closed gene pools will be needed in many breeds.

-- Feed your dog a high-quality diet made by a reputable company or a home-prepared diet prepared with the help of your veterinarian. Start with the amount of food recommended for your dog and adjust accordingly with how your pet's body responds.

-- Add omega-3 fatty acids (also known as n-3, found in fish oils and other sources) to potentially reduce the risk of developing cancer.

-- Spay or neuter your dog early in life. Spaying and neutering have been shown to be an effective method of preventing cancer. Spaying has a significant effect of preventing breast cancer if it is done before a dog goes into her first heat cycle.

-- Keep your dog fit with regular daily exercise.

-- Eliminate exposure to environmental carcinogens such as pesticides, coal or kerosene heaters, herbicides, passive tobacco smoke, asbestos, radiation and strong electromagnetic fields. Each one of these factors has been suggested to increase the risk of cancer in your dog (and in you).

-- Get regular wellness exams for your pet. Because the earlier cancer is discovered, the more treatment options you have.

Yes, I did all those things, and still ... cancer. But I know that even for those dogs who cannot be cured, most who are treated are still able to enjoy an improved, robust life for longer than many would have dreamed possible. In most situations, animals undergoing cancer treatment experience limited to no decrease in their quality of life. Almost all dogs with cancer can be helped, with the assistance of a good veterinary team.

That, and money. Which is why I can't tell you how very grateful I am today that I have long believed in and paid for pet health insurance. Because along with the savings I've set aside for just this sort of veterinary crisis, the decisions I'll be making will be for my dog's quality of life only, and not because I can't afford to treat her.

Q&A

Tips to keep dog

out of the litter

Q: We have one problem that we desperately want to end: The dog likes to eat what the cat puts in the litter box. Can you offer a solution? -- K.L., via e-mail

A: Feline feces are so attractive to many dogs that in most cases the only "cure" for this disgusting habit is restricting the dog's access. Suggestions include:

-- Covered litter boxes. You can find litter boxes with lids at almost any pet-supply store, and this might fix the problem if you have a larger dog. Cats who have asthma shouldn't use them, and some cats won't use them. But for some households, a covered box will solve the problem.

-- Change the litter box location. Make any change slowly, so as not to discourage litter box use by your cat. But it doesn't hurt to experiment by moving the litter box to a location beyond the dog's reach.

-- Provide barriers. One way is to rig the door to the room with the litter box so it stays open wide enough for the cat, but not for the dog. Another possibility is to cut a cat-sized hole through the door to the litter box room. For a small dog able to fit through any opening a cat can, a baby gate is an alternative: The cat can jump over, but the dog cannot.

Experiment with what works, and realize that punishment doesn't work when the reward is as wonderful (to your dog) as the litter box contents. This is one case in which training the cat in the house to make adjustments works much better than trying to train the dog. -- Gina Spadafori

Q: How fast can a cat scoot? -- W.T., via e-mail

A: The average domestic cat can run at a speed of around 30 mph. For comparison, a thoroughbred racehorse can maintain a speed of 45 mph for more than a mile. The fastest racing greyhounds run at speeds of just under 42 mph for about a third of a mile. Cats, well, they're not marathon runners, or even middle-distance runners; they're sprinters. While you could never outrun a dog over distances, any decent jogger could best a cat, as they quickly overheat when running and have to stop after just 30 to 60 seconds to rest and cool down. -- Dr. Marty Becker

Do you have a pet question? Send it to petconnection@gmail.com.

THE BUZZ

Increase water intake

for a healthier cat

-- Aside from routine preventive care, the No. 1 reason cats are taken to a veterinarian is for what's called feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD).

Missing the litter box is a classic symptom of this serious illness. Yet many people don't recognize the fact that a cat is sick, and they sometimes resort to punishment, which not only doesn't work on a sick cat, but also is also grossly unfair. Cats with FLUTD may also be observed straining or crying in pain when they urinate, and the urine can smell "different," even to the human nose.

The disease can turn up in any cat, but tends to hit middle-aged, overweight pets most. Stress may also be a contributing factor, which is why the problem sometimes turns up when cats are moved to a new home or when new people or pets join the family.

Litter box problems often indicate a sick cat, not a bad one. Keeping cats from becoming obese and encouraging them to drink more with a drinking fountain that recycles and filters water can help prevent problems, as can offering smaller meals and more play to relieve stress. Cats with chronic urinary tract issues may benefit from a special diet.

-- The average daily water intake for a dog is about 3 ounces for every 5 pounds of body weight, so a 25-pound dog would drink about a pint of water per day under average conditions. The amount goes up if the weather is hot, the dog is exercising or both. Depending on whether a pet eats canned or dry food, up to half of a pet's daily water consumption can come from food. Dogs drink a lot of water, not only because they need it for normal bodily functioning, but also to create moist nasal mucus to help them with their keen sense of smell. -- Mikkel Becker and Dr. Marty Becker

ABOUT PET CONNECTION

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by "Good Morning America" and "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are affiliated with Vetstreet.com and also the authors of many best-selling pet care books. Dr. Becker can also be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker.

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