This Saturday, 4th February, people all over the globe are marking World Cancer Day, an initiative led by the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC). Today is a day to raise awareness, improve education and spur people and governments into action to create a world where people – and companion animals – no longer fear cancer. Imagine it: no more preventable cancer deaths and access to life-saving cancer treatment and care for everybody, no matter their income, education, location, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, or… species. Because we know that your dog is part of your family and facing a canine cancer diagnosis is devastating. But it shouldn’t need to be.
Despite advancements in cancer prevention, many of us who seek cancer care face discrimination. This year's World Cancer Day theme is “Close the Care Gap”, empowering people to fight for fairness. At THE PACK, we think that pawrents should not only have equal access to cancer care for themselves, regardless of their backgrounds, but also equal access to care for their pets. There needs to be support for pawrents facing hefty veterinary bills, or worried about the cost of ordering that additional blood test. And there needs to be more education and awareness of the signs of cancer in our dogs, genetic disposition to specific forms of cancer in certain breeds, and how to help prevent cancer developing in your furry friend in the first place.
How Cancer Impacts Our Fur Pals
There’s an increasingly serious reason why pawrents should be supporting cancer research and raising awareness about the risks. Our pups are facing a health crisis when it comes to canine cancer. An estimated 1 in 4 companion dogs will develop the disease in one form or another, now the leading cause of canine death. Why? And is there anything we can do about it now, besides donations and education?
Well, there just might be. A growing number of vets are linking high cancer rates to meat-based pet foods, dogs suffering from the long-term damage of bioaccumulation. Chemical toxins in the environment build up (bioaccumulate) in animals as we move up the food chain. When our dogs eat other animals, often two or three times a day, they munch up the toxins that those pigs, cows, chickens and fish absorbed or ate. With the trends towards raw, high-protein, grain-free and ‘ancestral’ diets, our dogs are eating more meat than ever: is it a surprise that we’re seeing health consequences?
We also need to consider rancid fats: when fat is exposed to heat, light or oxygen over time, it breaks down into smaller particles called fatty acids and eventually becomes rancid (smelly, discoloured and oxidised). Rancid fats are often present in commercial meat-based diets, where the fats from animal flesh are rapidly heated during processing. Aside from being gross, rancid fats are a leading source of free radical production in dogs. These free radicals (unstable atoms that can damage cells) have been linked to – you’ve guessed it – cancer. This paper presents evidence that meat-based dog food cooked at high temperatures could release carcinogens (cancer-causing substances) and, as we know, big dog food companies have an incentive to process their meat as quickly as possible, often relying on these dangerous production methods.
For over seven years, the World Health Organization (WHO) have been warning that processed and red meat consumption is linked to cancer in humans, urging us to reduce the amount of meat we eat. Although there’s less research on the animal side, there’s evidence that high-meat pet diets link to specific cancers: a dog’s large bowel can start developing cancer due to feeding excessive protein, for instance. Furthermore, a review paper on inflammation and mammary cancer in humans and dogs found evidence that inflammation can increase the risk of cancer and speed up its growth. Red meat is famously inflammatory, as is dairy, so avoiding these ingredients and adding plant-powered superfoods with antioxidant effects is a great idea. In fact, a PETA study of 300 dogs found that no dog who had been ‘vegan’ for more than five years had cancer.
How Can We Help Our Dogs Fight Cancer?
All this means that removing the meat from our dog’s bowl could reduce the chances that your vet will utter that dreaded C-word. Instead of meat, THE PACK make sure that every can of our food contains a hefty portion of plant-based anti-inflammatories, from blueberries, to parsley, to red pepper. The vitamin C in these fruits and vegetables is a powerful antioxidant that fights cell damage, boosts immune system response to microbes and has an anti-inflammatory effect. We also pack in leafy greens like kale, which help the liver detoxify the body, and lots of algae-sourced omega-3 fatty acids (the good, not rancid, kind!) which have inflammation-busting impacts. With all these warrior ingredients on hand, why would anybody choose to feed their dog potentially carcinogenic meat?
How Can Our Dogs Help Us Fight Cancer?
One of the key pillars of World Cancer Day is the reminder that we all have a role to play in reducing the global impact of cancer. And guess what? That includes our furry friends. With their incredible sense of smell, our dogs are another weapon in our arsenal against cancer, able to detect tumours before they’ve actually been diagnosed. People have reported dogs constantly sniffing or nudging an area of their pawrent’s body, or the body of their fur friend, only to later find that the human or dog has cancer. How do our dogs do it? Well, tumours produce organic compounds which (to a hound’s sensitive sniffer) have a distinct smell, released into urine, breath and sweat. These compounds are particularly stinky in the early stages of cancer when cells are dividing. Studies over the last decade have shown dogs can identify the pee of patients with bladder cancer and accurately detect lung, ovarian and colorectal cancers simply by smelling breath samples! Early detection of cancer is key in effective treatment, so this is a big deal.
For pawrents who want to get involved in the battle against cancer, in dogs and their humans, https://www.worldcancerday.org/ has a wealth of information and downloadable resources. Because a world without cancer isn’t just a safer place for us: it would be a gamechanger for our four-legged pals too.
One thing to note is that often cancer research charities still test on animals. If this isn’t something you’re on board with, there are plenty of organisations who refuse to fund animal experimentation, instead using new technologies and ‘in vitro’ testing (which takes place outside living organisms, i.e., in a chemistry lab). So before donating, make sure that your generosity isn’t accidentally harming other animals by choosing animal-friendly cancer charities like American Breast Cancer Foundation (ABCF), CancerCare, Cancer Recovery Foundation International, Children’s Cancer Association, Susan Love Research Foundation or Gateway for Cancer Research.