Canine Cancers 101

I will be posting a series of articles on the various canine cancers. On this page is an overview, a Canine Cancer 101 of sorts. This particular piece I pulled from the site. It’s really one of the best explanations of cancer in terms of simplicity that I’ve ever read.

I’ve dealt with a number of the canine cancers in my own dogs over the years, including osteosarcoma (bone cancer), lymphoma, mast cell tumors and hemangiosarcoma. Future installments will explore each of these cancers in depth to foster understanding of these very complicated diseases. Beyond this Cancer 101 Overview, my Cancer Series will follow, with a different canine cancer being explored each week. Hopefully readers will find these articles helpful and informative.

After the “What is Cancer” article below is a fabulous piece entitled Cancer in Dogs: Mechanism and Cause by Dr. Larry Thornburg (University of Missouri). In it he discusses various carcinogens and toxins that our dogs are and can be exposed to, cancer DNA and the different treatments employed and why they prove so difficult.            A very eye-opening article. Thank you Dr. Thornburg!

What is Cancer?
Dog cancer, like human cancer, is the uncontrolled growth of cells on or within the
body. Although there are many types of cancer, they all start because of
out-of-control growth of abnormal cells.  Normal body cells grow, divide, and die in an
orderly fashion. During the early years of a dog’s life, normal cells divide more rapidly
until the dog becomes an adult. After that, cells in most parts of the body divide only
to replace worn-out or dying cells and to repair injuries.  Because cancer cells
continue to grow and divide, they are different from normal cells. Instead of dying,
they outlive normal cells and continue to form new abnormal cells.

Cancer cells develop because of damage to DNA. This substance is in every cell and directs

all activities. Most of the time when DNA becomes damaged the body is ableto repair it.

In cancer cells, the damaged DNA is not repaired.  Dogs can inherit damaged DNA,

which accounts for inherited cancers. More often, though, a dog’s DNA becomes damaged

by exposure to something in the environment, like smoke, pesticides or other carcinogens.

Cancerous tumors can spread to other parts of the body where they begin to grow and replace normal tissue.

This process is called metastasis.

For example, breast cancer that spreads to the liver is still called breast cancer, not liver cancer.
Regardless of where a cancer may spread, however, it is always named for the place
it began.Not all tumors are cancerous. Benign (noncancerous) tumors do not spread
(metastasize) to other parts of the body and, with very rare exceptions, are not life

If cancer is suspected in your dog, a veterinarian may order x-rays, blood tests, ultrasounds.  

A biopsy (the removal of a piece of tissue) is frequently performed for confirmation that cancer

exists and to determine the level of severity from benign to aggressively malignant (called grading).

We do not know how dogs get cancer most of the time. There are many types of cancer and

many possible causes of cancer (chemicals in our environment, sun exposure, assorted viruses and

infections). There are important genetic factors as well. Feeding your dog a healthy diet and keeping

them away from known carcinogens will help.  Spaying or neutering your dog will also reduce their risk

for developing certain cancers.

Each diagnosis of cancer requires individual care and treatment planning.  

Conventional treatment may include a combination of treatment therapies such as surgery, chemotherapy,

radiation, cryosurgery (freezing), hyperthermia (heating) or immunotherapy.

Complementary and alternative veterinary medicine (CAVM) therapies include acupuncture, behavior modification,
homeopathy, herbal medicine, mega-nutrient augmentation therapy, nutritional therapy and chiropractic therapy.  

Once diagnosed, your veterinarian will discuss the best treatment option(s) for your dog. In some instances, your

veterinarian may refer you to a board-certified oncologist (cancer specialist) depending upon the recommended course of

treatment.  It never hurts to get a second opinion and to research clinical trials for which you dog may be eligible.

Treatment success depends upon the type and extent of the cancer, as well as the aggressiveness of

therapy. Some cancers can be cured and almost all patients can be helped to some degree.

Another critical point is to understand exactly what is meant when data on efficacy of treatment is presented. Useful terms

Median – this is used in the context of survival, a median survival of three months means that 50% of the animals are alive at
three months, but 50% have died. It does not give you any information of the range of survival of individuals from within the
group. For example, individual animals may have survived for only a day to several years. A median survival is very useful to
allow comparison between different types of treatment.

Survival means just that: how long an animal stayed alive, usually from time of diagnosis, but it could also mean from time of
treatment, or from time the owner first noticed signs of a problem. It does not give you any information on what the animal’s
quality of life was during that time.

Progression free survival is the time the animal survived without progression of the clinical signs. 

Common Cancer Terms

Cancer:  any malignant, cellular tumor; cancers are divided into two broad categories of  carcinoma and sarcomas.

Neoplasm: an abnormal new growth of tissue in animals or plants; a tumor

Tumor:  1.) a swelling; a cardinal sign of inflammation.

2.)  neoplasm: a new growth of tissue in which cell multiplication is uncontrolled and progressive.

Benign tumor:  one lacking the properties of invasion and metastasis and showing a lesser degree of abnormal

cellularity than do malignant tumors.  These are usually surrounded by a fibrous capsule.

Malignant tumor:  has the properties of invasion and metastasis and displays cells with widely varying characteristics

Carcinoma:  a malignant growth made up of epithelial cells tending to infiltrate surrounding

tissues and gives rise to metastases.

Sarcoma:  a malignant tumor originating from connective tissue or blood or lymphatic tissues.

Metastasize:  spread throughout the body, of cancer cells

Growth:  can refer to any kind of an abnormal increase in size of tissue

Lump:  can be a growth or fluid filled cyst or any structure raising above the normal surface of a tissue plane.

Cancer in dogs: mechanism and cause….
by Dr. Larry Thornburg, University of Missouri

From normal cell to cancer cell. All organs in your dog are composed of cells. Cells are tiny units that can only be seen with a microscope. Thousands of cells make up each organ in your dog’s body. In general, all cells in all organs are alike (in the same manner one can say that all cars are alike). All cells digest food using organelles (literally “tiny organs”) called lysosomes. The  energy for all cells is supplied by organelles called mitochondria. All cells manufacture proteins using organelles called ribosomes. Each and every cell in your dog’s body contains exactly the same DNA (genes, chromosomes). And, the DNA that is in each cell is unique to your dog, different in some ways even from that of his/her littermates.The nucleus of every cell contains between 60,000 and 100,000 genes. Among those 60,000-plus genes are approximately 100 genes that control cell division. Think about the union of the egg and the sperm giving rise to a single cell. That single cell and
the many generations of daughter cells, divide thousands of times over 63 days to produce the normal puppy with bones, muscles, skin, hair, heart, kidneys for example. Over the next several weeks to months those generations of cells composing the puppy must divide thousands of more times in order for the puppy to grow into the adult dog. The majority of cells never divide
again once adult size is reached. Only a few cell types such as bone marrow cells, skin cells and cells of the intestines continue to divide throughout the lifetime of your dog.
More than 50 years of scientific research by thousands of scientists worldwide and billions of dollars have been spent trying to understand cancer. The main question that scientists are trying to answer is, “How do cells know when to divide and when to stop dividing?” “Cancer” is the disease that occurs when the normal control genes in a cell fail and that cell is released to divide
relentlessly. Cells of the bone, skin, liver, blood vessels, heart, brain, any cell in your dog’s body can become transformed into a cancer cell.

When cells divide out of control the accumulation of more and more cancerous daughter cells results in crowding out of the normal cells and, eventually, failure of the affected organ. Accumulation of cancerous daughter cells can result in the appearance of an enlarging nodule on the bone or in the skin, for example. In addition, the cancerous daughter cells may have the capacity to reach distant organs (metastasize) by traveling in the blood. Once the mobile cancer cells reach a distant organ,
the relentless cell division also causes failure of that organ (or those organs).

What are “cancer genes”? The nucleus of each cell contains DNA (short for DeoxyriboNucleic Acid). DNA is organized into long structures termed chromosomes. In dogs there are 78 chromosomes. As opposed to your dog, you have 46 chromosomes. Each one of your individual chromosomes is longer that those of your dog. However, you and your dog have approximately the
same total quantity of DNA. Genes are arranged along the chromosomes exactly like beads on a necklace. Those 78 chromosomes of your dog contain 60,000 to 100,000 genes. Those 60,000 to 100,000 genes control every activity that every cell in every organ performs, including cell division.

Some of the 100 genes that control cell division are comparable to the car accelerator and these genes cause cells to divide. However, there is another group of genes that is comparable to the brakes of the car and these genes prevent cells from dividing. Each cell maintains a careful balance of activity between the two groups of control genes. This careful balance allows all cells to divide during development of the puppy. But, that delicate balance changes in the adult dog to prevent the majority of cells from dividing, while allowing controlled division in cells such as blood producing cells. When cell-division-control genes becomes mutated (the DNA changes in chemical structure), the balance is lost forever and uncontrolled cell division (cancer) results. These two groups of genes that control cell division are called “cancer genes.” All cancers are the result of mutations in one or more of the approximately 100 genes that control cell division.

What causes the mutations in the cancer genes? Each day of your dog’s life all of the genes of each cell are subjected to a barrage of insults that have the potential to cause a mutation. Toxic chemicals can cause a mutation in DNA. One category of toxic chemicals comes from within the cell. These toxic chemicals are normal products of daily chemical activities within each cell.
For the most part, cells have developed mechanisms for detoxifying these waste products. However, some of these toxic waste products escape the protective mechanisms of the cell and attack the cell’s DNA.

Another category of toxic chemicals are components of the normal diet. Every diet contains plant matter. All plants have developed various chemical mechanisms to evade being eaten by their natural predators: insects, bacteria, fungus and viruses. The chemicals that are toxic to the natural predators of plants are also toxic to the living cells of your dog in many instances. Some of these naturally occurring chemicals can cause mutations in the DNA. A third category of toxic chemicals is the
man-made chemicals. There is a long list of man-made chemicals that are known to cause mutations in the DNA of cells and result in cancer.

Viruses can cause a mutation in a gene. However, there are very few viruses that have been proven to cause cancer in dogs, and at this time it does not appear that viruses are a significant cause of cancer in dogs. Irradiation (the sun’s rays) can cause cancer. Cancer caused by irradiation is uncommon in domestic animals except those individuals without pigmentation in their skin. Lifetime exposure to the sun can cause cancer on the white ears or white face of dogs. All of these above are known as “acquired cancer.”

Inherited cancer is somewhat different. All genes are paired (two copies of each gene) within every cell. One copy of the gene comes from the dam and one copy of the gene comes from the sire. With many of the 60,000-plus genes there is not a substantial consequence when one gene of the pair is mutated because the cell has the other (normal) copy to carry on normal function. The two groups of cancer genes (the “accelerator” genes versus the “brake” genes) are somewhat different from each
other. It generally requires only one copy of an “accelerator” gene to be mutated for cancer to occur. However, both copies of a “brake” gene must be mutated for cancer to occur.

When a puppy inherits one mutated copy of a “brake” gene from the dam or the sire, every cell in each organ has only one normal copy to carry out the control of cell division. That puppy has an increased risk of developing cancer relative to dogs with two normal copies of the “brake” gene. If the dog with only one normal copy of the gene suffers a single chemical insult, the affected cell will lose control of cell division and it will become a cancer cell. Dogs do not “inherit” cancer per se. Dogs (and people) inherit a “susceptibility” to develop cancer. That is, the dog that inherits one abnormal copy of a “brake” gene is more likely to develop cancer in his/her lifetime than is a littermate with two normal copies of the same “brake” gene. Genetic testing attempts to determine if a particular dog inherited (and could consequently pass to the offspring) one abnormal copy of a cancer gene.

Why is treatment of cancer so difficult? Generally, there are three methods by which cancer can be treated. Surgery is a good choice for treatment if the cancer is localized to a single area and the veterinarian has the opportunity to completely remove the cancer. However, some cancers, although localized, occur in areas that are not amenable to surgery (in the wall of the heart for example). Likewise, another cancer may have occurred originally in the skin, but has now spread to several
different areas of the lungs. Surgery would not provide a cure for this dog.

Chemotherapy is a second choice for treatment of cancer. As you can see from the information presented above, cancer is simply a normal process (ie, cell division) that is out of control. Cancer cells are identical to normal cells in every way except the control of cell division (cancer cells have lost the control of cell division). Chemotherapeutic agents are toxic chemicals that are
used to kill the cancer cells. However, since all cells in the body are undergoing the exact same living processes, all chemotherapeutic agents kill normal cells as well as cancer cells. This is the reason why some dogs (and some people) get very sick during the chemotherapy. The drugs and the dose of those drugs that are used for chemotherapy are a delicate balance between killing the cancer cells and killing the normal cells of the body.

Radiation is the third mode of cancer therapy. Radiation has the potential to kill any cell in the body. Again, the idea of radiation therapy for cancer is to localize the destructive beam to the cancer, sparing the normal cells. This can be very successful when the cancer is a solitary nodule and the radiation beam can be focused on the cancer. However, when cancer is widespread (metastatic cancer) it is usually not possible to kill only the cancer cells and radiation is rarely a treatment under such circumstances.

Credit: both articles on this page came from

4 thoughts on “Canine Cancers 101

  1. Pingback: Canine Cancers 101 | Angels Bark

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