When Your Pet Has Cancer
The word “pet” doesn’t begin to describe the relationship many people have with animals
who often serve as confidantes and best buddies. So what would you do if you were told
your precious companion had cancer? Meet two people who turned to herbal medicine...
and learn how to avoid such heartache in the first place.
Have you ever been fortunate enough to share a deep bond of friendship with a very special pet? George Bombard has. Garbo, his buff cocker spaniel, “was the perfect dog, the perfect companion, smart as a whip—a wonderful animal,” says the retired school guidance counselor from Farmingdale, New York. “She would follow me everywhere and sleep on my bed.”
Eventually Garbo developed a chronic cough. “Other than that she was energetic and appeared normal in every way,” Bombard remembers. “She was old but very vital.” After a year of taking codeine, though, her cough only worsened—and an internist discovered a tumor “the size of a lemon” in Garbo’s left lung that appeared cancerous. Bombard took her to a veterinary oncologist who “looked at me, looked at Garbo, looked at the X-rays and confirmed the diagnosis, with a prognosis of one month. He wanted to do surgery. I thought, ‘I’m not going to put Garbo through that.’” Bombard didn’t like the idea of chemotherapy, either: “I felt that, considering her age, this would compromise her health.”
That’s when he heard about Dr. Jiu Wen at the Hampton Veterinary Hospital in Speonk, on Long Island’s East End. Wen said that Garbo wasn’t a candidate for surgery, since the tumor was too close to her windpipe, and so “he treated her herbally, with no conventional medications,” Bombard says. “Dr. Wen became attached to Garbo—he used to call her ‘sweetie.’ The attitude and camaraderie of both the staff and Dr. Wen towards Garbo was, for me, a gift.” Man and dog received another gift, too: 15 months and 10 days of additional time together—the equivalent of more than 10 years in human terms.
Of conventional medicine’s Big Three—surgery, chemotherapy and radiation—Wen finds surgery to be the most helpful: “If you have a sarcoma on the toe and you take it out early, it is cured.” But when combined treatment is needed, he generally prefers herbs to chemo. In mammary cancer, the animal equivalent of breast cancer, “if you do surgery with herbal follow-up 80% do well, with no recurrence,” he says. “If you follow up with chemo you get six months to a year.”
Some malignancies do not lend themselves to surgical removal. One example is heart-base tumor, “common in Labradors and goldens, those type of dogs,” according to Wen. “If you use herbal treatments, 80% will respond well. You may still find the tumor if you do a sonogram, but the tumor isn’t causing a problem.” In Garbo’s case, Bombard says her lung cancer “became somewhat smaller and the coughing subsided”—which allowed her to enjoy nearly all of her remaining days.
Skippy is another dog that has beaten the odds so far. This 13-year-old border collie mix, who has a liver cancer known as hemangiosarcoma, has been receiving herbal treatments for 10 months after being given a prognosis of three weeks. Skippy doesn’t know how lucky he is—he simply enjoys swimming in the ocean and chasing cats. But his owner, Peggy Ehrensperger of Wantagh, is grateful. “We were told to give him chemo and that there was basically no hope,” she recalls. “I now take him to Dr. Wen and he’s alert and active. And when his time comes, at least I’ll know that everything which could have been done for him was done.”
Wen says that the secret to using herbs in cancer therapy lies in creating a precisely blended formula. “There’s a of lot herbs with anti-cancer function—kelp, for example—but if you use them singly you have to use such a high dosage that you get toxicity problems,” he explains. “That means you have to use 10, 20, 30 different herbs. You form a strategy to fight the cancer: some attack the tumor, some support the immune system, some buffer the toxic effects of the others.”
Unfortunately, Wen has to employ his tumor-fighting herbal formulation skills quite often. He says that malignancies are “very, very common” at Hampton Veterinary, adding that his cancer patients “tend to be younger now. I see dogs with lymphoma at two or three years old.”
National statistics regarding animal cancer rates are hard to come by, however, because veterinary cancers are not subject to the same reporting standards that apply to human cases. There’s also what can be described as the “pet factor”—folks are much more likely nowadays to take a beloved animal to the vet when it ails, which leads to more reported cases of cancer and other diseases.
“People have a different relationship with their animals,” explains Dr. Michael Lucroy, veterinary oncologist and associate professor at Purdue University’s School of Veterinary Medicine. “They are quite attached to their cats, as opposed to how people used to treat barn cats.” The same thing goes for dogs; animals that were once prized for their hunting or working skills are now valued for their own lovable dogginess—and seen as being worth the expense of first-class veterinary care.
Our animal companions get cancer for many of the same reasons we do, starting with the fact that we’re all living longer—the kind of genetic damage that causes cancer accumulates with the passage of time. In addition, an ever-increasing body of evidence suggests that environmental toxins are at least partially to blame. In one study, cats exposed to second-hand smoke ran a greater risk of developing lymphoma; in another, exposure to lawn chemicals was associated with an increase in bladder cancers among Scottish terriers.
Some cancer risk factors, though, are unique to our animal pals. Among cats, “the main cause of cancer is over-vaccination,” Wen says. Ironically, one of those vaccinations is designed to guard against the feline leukemia virus (FeLV), which itself leaves a cat prone to cancer and immune deficiency.
Among dogs, some breeds are more likely to develop specific cancers than others. “When you select for coat color, let’s say, you may also inadvertently select for cancer,” says Lucroy. The larger breeds are particularly susceptible to bone cancer; long-nosed breeds can develop nasal cancer.
Wen cites boxers as being prone to mast cell tumors, and a survey in the United Kingdom found that Afghans, Irish wolfhounds, standard (full-size) poodles and rottweilers were more cancer-prone overall.
No matter what kind of dog (or cat) you have, it helps to know what symptoms should lead you to schedule an appointment at the vet’s office:
*Breathing difficulties, including coughing
*Difficulty in eating or swallowing; problems passing urine or stool
*Chronic vomiting or diarrhea
*Oral odor or swellings in the mouth not associated with tooth problems
One way to protect your pet against cancer is to avoid having him or her neutered too early. “You should wait until six months for cats, six to seven months for toy dogs, 10 to 12 months for bigger breeds and for giant breeds, such as Great Danes, you should wait for a year,” suggests Wen. The idea is to catch females before their first heat cycle (which helps to drastically reduce their chances of developing mammary cancer) and males before they start to mark territory (phew!).
When it comes to kitties, vaccinate only when absolutely needed. Annual rabies shots are mandatory in many states, but otherwise “have your cat vaccinated every three or four years,” Wen says. “The idea is to do blood titering, checking to see if there are acceptable levels of antibodies in the body.”
And although cats are notorious sun worshippers try to keep them out of direct sunlight in the summer, especially cats with white ears (a common skin cancer site).
Improper eating habits have been implicated in tumor development among humans, so it’s not surprising to learn that veterinarians are also exploring the same kind of associations. That may mean a change in diet if your pet is already ill. “Each food has its own characteristic; some will promote growth, some won’t,” explains Wen. “Since cancer is excess growth, you look for something that doesn’t promote growth. Fish and chicken both promote growth, so you try to avoid them.”
Diet is also important in preventing cancer. “I strongly recommend rotating food—changing from chicken to turkey, from turkey to beef, etc.—every six months. That way you are not exposing your pet to the same proteins year after year,” Wen says. “Food should be preservative-free; organic is even better.”
Apparently a lot of animal lovers agree with Wen. Sales of organic pet foods have been growing by leaps and bounds, especially since a food contamination incident earlier this year left thousands of cats and dogs ill with kidney failure. For both pets and their humans, food can now only be labeled “organic” if it meets a number of certification requirements as promulgated by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). These regulations prohibit the use of nearly all synthetic substances in crop production, including pesticides, chemical fertilizers and weedkillers, and also ban the usage of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), radiation (used to kill bacteria and fungi) and sewage sludge (as fertilizer).
Cats and dogs not only differ in the kinds of companionship they provide (a source of unending debate among cat lovers and dog lovers!) but also in the kinds of food they require. Dogs, like people, are omnivores—they’ll eat just about anything. That not only makes vegetables a wonderful addition to your dog’s diet, but means that dogs may derive the same anti-cancer benefits from veggies that we do; Lucroy says that in a study at Purdue, supplementing the diets of Scottish terriers with vegetables three times a week reduced cancer risk.
Cats, on the other hand, are obligate carnivores, creatures who require meat for their health and well-being—don’t turn kitty into a vegetarian! Cats also need to get the following nutrients through their diets because their bodies, unlike those of dogs and humans, cannot create these substances internally: vitamin A, niacin (vitamin B3), arachidonic acid (a fatty acid found in meat) and the amino acids (protein building blocks) taurine and arginine. They also require more protein than dogs do, but should never be fed an all-fish diet (despite their almost obsessive fondness for canned tuna), because it will not meet their nutritional needs.
Just because dogs don’t require supplemental nutrients doesn’t mean that such supplements may not do them good. In fact, scientists associated with the Gerald P. Murphy Cancer Foundation at the Purdue Research Park plan to feed either antioxidant supplements or placebos (lookalike pills) to 700 healthy rottweilers between the ages of five and six for the next eight years; the idea is to learn whether or not antioxidant supplementation can not only reduce the incidence of bone cancer among these large dogs but also promote longevity.
Should you ever face the kinds of decisions that both Bombard and Ehrensperger have had to make, be sure to explore all available treatment options. But it’s just as important to ensure that your cherished companion gets the proper care he or she needs right now—so you can spend many more happy years together.