Four of the most gut-wrenching words a veterinarian can utter are "your dog has cancer." It's a life-changing diagnosis that strikes all-too often (the Animal Cancer Foundation says one in four dogs will develop cancer). Among retrievers, rates of lymphomas and mast-cell tumors are fairly high, and goldens are particularly susceptible to angiosarcomas.
However, there is good news to report: Thanks to a series of medical breakthroughs, canine cancer is no longer a death sentence.
"Just like with human patients, we're getting far better at helping animals with cancer live a whole lot longer and a whole lot better," says Dr. Gerald Post, veterinary oncologist at The Veterinary Cancer Center in Norwalk, Connecticut. "There are several reasons for this: We're now able to detect cancer earlier, resulting in more effective treatments; the therapies themselves are getting more effective; and there are a lot more interventions to mitigate the side effects of therapy."
Arguably the greatest advancement in cancer treatment is veterinarians' ability to target the disease — even its specific sub-types — while sparing healthy cells. Radiation treatments, for example, are vastly improved thanks to the development of CT scans and "intensity modulated radiation therapy." Radiation more accurately kills cancerous cells while avoiding surrounding tissues, improving effectiveness and decreasing side effects.
The modern era has also seen development of "targeted therapy" drugs, which attack a specific molecule found only in certain cancer cells. Thus, the tumor is reduced and/or prevented from spreading with minimal side effects.
"They're really revolutionizing cancer treatment," says Post. "We can now target the specific defect resulting in the cancer growth."
Currently, two such drugs are approved in the U.S.: Palladia, which targets mast-cell skin tumors; and Kinavet, prescribed for recurrent or non-operable mast-cell tumors.
Chemotherapy, too, is increasingly tailored to individual cases.
"We're getting better at chemotherapy protocols that are more specific to the sub-type of cancer the dog has," Post explains. "Veterinarians also increase or decrease dosage based on how the pet is handling it and how the disease is responding."
Reduced Side Effects
If the cancer is caught early and chances of survival are high, in this era it's often worth the fight.
"The very word 'chemo' evokes thoughts of 'I'd never do that to my pet'," says Post. "But oncologists have gotten so much better at utilizing chemo drugs. Not long ago, it was normal for 10 to 20 percent of dogs being treated for cancer to end up in hospitals due to side effects. Today it's less than one percent."
Anti-nausea, anti-diarrheal and other meds can now be prescribed proactively rather than in response to side effects.
When considering the type of treatment, you must also contemplate the cancer's level of advancement.
"It's incredibly important for cancer to be caught early," Post advises. "Early detection does more than anything else to extend the life of your retriever."
According to Post, here are the top 10 symptoms to watch for: swollen lymph nodes; an enlarging or changing lump; abdominal distension; chronic weight loss; chronic vomiting or diarrhea; unexplained bleeding; a dry, non-productive cough; lameness; straining to urinate; and oral odor.
Note that these ailments can have a variety of causes that aren't necessarily cancer-related. Still, they warrant a veterinary examination.
Post says the best way to prevent cancer is by ensuring your dog eats a balanced diet and gets plenty of exercise — I assume your duck dog already has that covered. Sound like the same advice given to humans? There's a reason for that.
"Dogs are affected by the same cancers as people," says Post. "They get spontaneous cancer, like people, and their cancers behave similar biologically. In fact, knowledge gained fighting cancer in dogs could one day help people, too."
Blue, Labrador Retriever
Hunting during the North Dakota non-resident opener in 2014. First time out there for me and my dog, Blue, a 3 1/2-year-old BLM. Beautiful country.
— Daniel Simoens
Bolo, Labrador Retriever
Hunting the North Platte River in Nebraska, using my Winchester SX3 and trusty retriever Bolo.
— Rick Walleen
Vito, Springer Spaniel
Vito, springer spaniel retrieving a duck. He's 5-years-old in this photo.
— Alex Pepin
Speed, Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever
Our 1-year-old, Speed, doing what he loves most — going after ducks! After all, it's in his name — Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever! Owned and trained by Chuck Hastedt — Soaring Heart Kennels, Lucas, TX.
— Chuck Hastedt
Diche', Chesapeake Bay Retriever
This is my dog Diche' going hard off his stand one morning on a hunt in the Mississippi delta. He has a lot of drive and is still a puppy. This was our first season together and I love hunting with him.
— Edward Wall
Diche', Chesapeake Bay Retriever
My dog Diche' in full overdrive going through a rice field in the Mississippi delta. Diche is just over a year old and this season was our first together. He has a big motor and loves hunting.
— Edward Wall
Rocky, Springer Spaniel
November Sky's Rocket Boy "Rocky," our 1-year-old springer spaniel, hunting mallards in a cornfield north of Missoula, MT.
— Jim Reeve
Herbie, Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever
Our Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever, Herbie, fetching a duck at 3 1/2-months-old! He is a half-brother to the toller on the cover of the October issue!
— Laurie Geyer
Loki, Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever
Loki after a hard day of work watching for more birds. He is a 5-year-old Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever!
— Nelson Johansen
Bella, Labrador Retriever
Bella doing what she does best. This picture was taken during a hunt in Oklahoma. The vest being worn by Bella is a Drake Waterfowl Dog Vest.
— Zach Scovell
Dan Giberson, Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever
Magnum, our 3-year-old Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever, doing one of many Canada goose water retrieves on a recent goose hunt.
— Dan Giberson
Bena, Labrador Retriever
This is Bena, meaning pheasant in the Sioux language. She is an English bred lab retrieving a duck for me in Arkansas this year.
— Eric Dean
Sir Frederick, American Cocker Spaniel
Sir Frederick, our American cocker spaniel, busy at work during a hunt last season.
— John Looney
Pumpkin, American Cocker Spaniel
Here's our American Cocker Spaniel, Pumpkin, retrieving a duck during a great day of duck hunting.
— Marsha Linehan
Atlas, Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever
Atlas, a 3-year-old Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever, brings in a crippled duck during an early season hunt.
— Andrew Hotton