May 7, 2011

Animals get cancer too

By Luo Jian, Indiana, USA

I came to know Ben at Datian National Nature Reserve on Hainan Island in 2007 where I worked as a volunteer. Ben has been one of my best friends ever since.  I’m now a pre-vet student at Purdue University and will start vet school in August. Ben asked me to talk about my volunteer experience in the Oncology Department at Purdue’s Animal Teaching Hospital. This experience has helped me understand and relate to Ben even though I am very far away!

Cancers in animals are not that different from cancers in humans. 

It is one of the major causes of death in animals too. And cancers in animals are also caused mostly by mutations in genes, which take time to develop as in humans. That’s probably one of the reasons why many of our patients are between 9 and 12 years old (average life span of a dog is 12.6 yrs). The Oncology Department not only treats animals, but also does research and clinical trials as in a human hospital.  Surprisingly, the clinical trails and research we are doing can potentially benefit humans because some forms of cancer mimic those in people. 

Animals get similar tumors to people such as lymphoma, sarcoma and carcinoma. The diagnostics we use mirror what Ben has been though, including physical exams, measurements of tumor sizes, aspiration, biopsy, ultrasound, CT scans (animals have to be anesthetized for CT scan, we can even perform CT scans on horses!) and PET scans. There are also some other types of examination: I once witnessed a rhinoscopy for a nasal tumor - experience of a life time (for me and the dog)!

Cancer treatment in animals includes surgery

Treatment can also include chemotherapy or radiation therapy (but animals have to be sedated for radiation so they don't move around). Drugs can be given to some patients as well. The results of these treatments are very good.  Our Oncology Department has helped many animals extend their life and helped some animals enjoy two or more years with their family after treatment. This may not sound like much, but consider what it means for a dog whose life span is only 12 years to begin with. 

My favorite parts of working at the Oncology Department
  • Rounds: first thing in the morning doctors and technicians discuss patients’ medical history, current condition and future diagnosis/treatment. Doctors also use this time to write cards for owners whose pets have passed away.
  • Medical procedures that I get to witness and participate in.
  • The patients! They are so optimistic and enjoy the life they still have, to run on the grass, to wag their tails, to be bathed in sun, to have their belly rubbed and be cuddled. The tremendous trust they give us gives me tears.
  • The doctors and technicians are so knowledgeable, extremely kind and actually bond with the patients. One of our doctors shed tears when hearing a patient died the other day. 

I’m less worried about Ben after working in an Oncology Department, albeit an animal one! There are many treatments and much progress in research/clinical trials. Most importantly, Ben has his family and friends and dedicated doctors and nurses who really want to make him better. I believe their efforts will not be in vain and now I just wait for him to get better!


  1. Thanks for contributing this LJ. This is a whole other side of cancer I never knew about. Some quick questions:

    1. Do you know if wildlife get cancers?
    2. What are the most common cancers in pets?Hormone-dependent cancers or digestive system cancers?

  2. To answer your question:
    1. I never seen a wild-life getting cancer, but I suppose they can, but the occurrence maybe lower. You see, the reason why cancer has been more prevalent than before is because people (pets) now have a longer life-span so the mutations can build on. For wild-life, they are still living in their normal life-span, or perhaps shorer life-span because of the environment damage.

    2. Honestly,I haven't seen enough cases to answer the question.the most common one I see in the hospital is the bladder cancer, but bladder cancer is Purdue's expertise so maybe we get referred to more frequently. Bone cancer seems to be the second common one I see.


  3. Hi Benbo,

    What about Tassie devils?

    Although I guess this is outside the usual domain of cancer, being contagious...

    The whole concept of a virus causing cancer is interesting, and kind of spooky.

  4. Actually adenovirus is another common cause of cancers because it can fastened the mutation rate of the cells. There are basically two mechanisms:1. Virus can insert a strong promotor near a proto-oncogen(gene that promotes cell proliferation) so it can be over-expressed.
    2. proto-oncogene can be inserted into the newly made virus genome, and be mutated in the virus (virus has a very high mutation rate compared to humans).When this virus infected another cell this abnormal proto-oncogene will be inserted back to the cell, and the cell may become a cancer cell.

    PS: Cervical cancer can be cause by herpes virus