by Jean Hofve, DVM
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:
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:
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.
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