This year, cancer will kill half of dogs over 10 years old. This devastating disease is increasingly seen in cats, and in younger pets as well.
Because cancer is so mysterious and seemingly powerful in its ability to destroy health and deplete us emotionally (and financially), it is easy to become overwhelmed, and to take a fatalistic attitude. We know so little, and cancer seems to strike our pets and us almost randomly; we may think, “What’s the point of trying to do anything about it?” However, there are simple, practical steps you can take that will greatly reduce your pet’s risk of cancer.
What causes cancer?
In most cases, cancer is not caused by any single factor (the exceptions are cancers directly caused by vaccination, such as vaccine-associated sarcomas in cats and, to a lesser extent, dogs and ferrets). Factors such as age, genetics, exposure to toxic carcinogens, lifestyle, infections, and stress may all play a role in the development of cancer in pets. Cancer develops when abnormal (mutated) cells begin to reproduce in the body at alarming rates, and begin to interfere with the normal functioning of healthy cells, organs, or body tissues. Our pets’ bodies produce so many cells every day that large numbers of abnormal cells are created all the time. In a healthy body, the immune system scavenges and destroys these abnormal cells. According to the National Cancer Institute, tumors develop when this immune surveillance breaks down or is overwhelmed. It is overly simplistic to state that cancer is always and only due to immune system failure, but the immune system is certainly always involved.
The immune system plays many roles in both cancer prevention and cancer development. Surveillance for and destruction of abnormal and damaged cells is one such role. Another—and perhaps the most important—is inflammation. While acute inflammation is one of the body’s major defense mechanisms, chronic inflammation is now thought to be at the root of many diseases of aging, and other conditions that are associated with cancer.
The bottom line is this: the best defense against cancer is a balanced, healthy immune system—one that responds appropriately (not too little, not too much) and cleans up after itself (once the problem/inflammation is resolved). Therefore, supporting a properly functioning immune is the single most important thing you can do to minimize your pet’s cancer risk.
How the immune system becomes unbalanced:
The immune system is negatively affected by many factors:
- Genetics: The genetic make-up of the animal greatly influences the stability and power of the immune system. Purebred pets from sources where the bloodlines are not well controlled (such as puppy mills, backyard breeders, pet stores, and auctions), are typically more susceptible to disease and immune dysfunction,
- Age: immune function naturally declines as our animals get older
- Poor nutrition: most commercial pet foods contain many additives and preservatives
- Toxic exposure: our pets are constantly exposed to multiple toxins in food, air, and water
- Infection: some bacterial, fungal, and viral diseases directly impact how the immune system functions
- Medications: many drugs, such as steroids and certain antibiotics, suppress the immune system
- Vaccination (for more information, see our article on vaccination)
- Extreme weather: expect this to worsen from both natural and man-made factors
- Electromagnetic fields: these emanate from the sun as well as man-made sources (cell phone towers, power lines, electric lights, microwaves, and even the wiring in our homes
- Sedentary lifestyle: exercise is a natural stress reducer and immune booster
- Inadequate rest: 24/7 exposure to light and noise can disrupt sleep patterns
- Stress of all kinds: including emotional, social, mental, and territorial stress. Pets can not only be subject to their own stress, but they readily absorb stress from human family members.
Some of these factors are within our control; but many are not. We can’t slow down the passage of time, alter the weather, or escape from solar and man-made radiation, but we can make many important changes to improve our pets’ (and our own) immune systems and reduce cancer risk.
Supporting the immune system:
Here are some positive, proactive steps you can take to support your pet’s immune system, decrease stress, and reduce chronic inflammation:
- Provide a natural diet with as many fresh, raw, whole foods as possible.
- Give your pet antioxidants,Omega-3 (EPA an DHA), and other supplements to support immune function, decrease inflammation, and promote cellular health.
- Offer only purified, filtered water - tap water always contains chemicals, and bottled water commonly contains leached toxic plastic compounds.
- Eliminate chemical toxins used in and around your home; choose non-toxic, green cleaning products, and avoid artificial scents such as candles, carpet powders, and air fresheners.
- Do not smoke - especially around pets (and children!). If you must smoke, go outside!
- Don’t over-vaccinate, and never vaccinate a sick animal.
- Keep pets off and away from televisions and computers.
- Reduce your pet’s exposure to toxins like fertilizers & pesticides
- Avoid chemical flea & tick products and use natural insect control products instead.
- Reduce emotional stress for your pet and yourself with flower essences, massage, homeopathy, and other energy therapies.
- Exercise and play with your cat or dog every day.
If you already know a little bit about holistic pet care, these steps will be familiar to you, but really understanding that they can help reduce the risk of cancer will help reinforce their benefits in your mind and—we hope—motivate and encourage you to implement them for your pet’s health.