Dr Kiki Schneider, the owner of Hakuna Matata Veterinary Clinic in Bloubergstrand, Cape Town, is our November 2021 Vet of the Month.

As November is Pet Cancer Awareness Month, we asked Dr Schneider to share some information regarding the most common types of cancer found in cats and dogs, and how owners can spot the signs and get their furry friends the help they need. Here is what Dr Schneider had to say:

To be honest, I do not like the big scary C-word, as it terrifies owners and leaves them feeling hopeless, before we’ve even explored all our options. Instead, we refer to it as tumours, masses, or growths. In the medical field, all masses or growths are called tumours and are then classified into being benign or malignant.

If a tumour is benign, it will not spread. Some of the benign tumours could potentially return at the sight they were removed from, but nothing worse than that.

Malignant tumours also have different grades and potency of malignancy. Some spread very rapidly and some very slowly. Depending on the actual tumour, the organs it spreads to can also vary.


Tumours found in dogs

The most common tumour found in dogs is skin-related. They can either be in the subdermal layer, intradermal or on top of the skin. These tumours are initially evaluated by doing a fine needle aspirate, where we draw some cells of the tumour into a needle, transport them onto a slide, stain them, and then examine them under the microscope. We cannot make a diagnosis this way, but it provides a rough estimate to help us decide on how to proceed.

The tumour we are most concerned with is the Mast Cell Tumour (MCT), a malignant tumour classified into different grades. The MCT is the one tumour we can diagnose on a fine needle aspirate, but we cannot grade it in this way. Once we know that it is an MCT, we take remove the tumour as well as 2 cm of normal tissue around the tumour. MCTs, as well as some other skin tumours, have microscopic fingers that spread out around them. So basically, there is more to the tumour than meets the eye, and we have to make sure we remove all of it.

The histopathologist will then evaluate the tumour we have removed in more detail, grade it, and tell us if we have removed everything. This brings me to the point of early detection. The sooner we examine a growth on the skin, the more chance of the best outcome. We do not want these growths to get too big, else there is not enough skin left over to close the wound.

Dogs also suffer from internal tumours, most commonly found on the liver, the spleen, and the intestines. The intestinal tumours are often not growths/masses as such, but can be diffusely spread within the intestinal wall, making detection difficult. Again, like with skin tumours, to make a definitive diagnosis, a biopsy/fine needle aspirate is needed. This can be done via ultrasound, or sometimes exploratory surgery, to take biopsies of the intestinal wall, liver or spleen for the histopathologist to make a diagnosis.

Early detection of tumours within the body is a bit more difficult in our furry patients. They cannot talk and tell us if something feels odd within them. Some may show behavioural changes, often perceived as “old age”, but in fact is the dog being in some kind of discomfort. When your dog enters the geriatric age (6 years for large breeds and 8 years for small breeds), it may be a good idea to ask your vet to do an abdominal ultrasound. This will hopefully help detect early changes.


Tumours found in cats

Now, to our feline patients. Cats are very different from dogs. The main skin tumour found in cats is sun-induced squamous cell carcinoma. These occur in white-skinned cats, and most commonly occur on the tips of white ears and white noses. This tumour can also occur in dogs but is found more commonly on the belly of white-skinned dogs that love lying in the sun. Cats also love lying in the sun on their backs, but their denser fur offers more sun protection.

The lesions typically start as small crusts on the ears and nose, (or in the case of dogs: on the belly) and they can spread quite far. Treatment is surgical excision. The ears and nose may need to be amputated, which may cause some alarm to owners about their kitties’ aesthetics. However, once these are removed cancer won’t return – which is much more important than maintaining purr-fect looks!

In a nutshell, any skin growth needs to be checked and assessed by your veterinarian as soon as detected. A veterinarian cannot make a diagnosis of a lump by just feeling it.

Chat to your vet about regular ultrasounds for the older patient.