Cancer is the leading cause of death in cats, according to the Pet Cancer Center. Among humans, cancer remains a primary cause of death around the globe, the World Health Organization reports, with up to 84 million people projected to die of cancer by the year 2015.
Such statistics are daunting. But for reasons not yet fully understood, cat cancers tend to be among the most aggressive among mammals. It’s possible that we’re just not detecting them early enough. Researchers, however, are learning more about cancer, with treatments improving with advanced science, knowledge and technology. Kim Selting, an associate teaching professor of oncology at the University of Missouri-Columbia College of Veterinary Medicine, shares some of her latest findings, which could also apply to our health.
The Mammal Cancer Connection
Researchers, like Selting, are working to establish connections that can benefit all mammals suffering from cancer. “Recent initiatives in medicine emphasize the fact that despite differences in anatomy, the basic parts are the same across species, especially mammals,” she explains. “And despite minor differences in physiology, those parts have very similar functions and responses to disease across species.”
As a result, her university has created the One Health, One Medicine initiative. It emphasizes research on numerous animals — not just rodents, which used to be the norm for cancer studies. Selting recently coauthored such a study, published in the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association. In it, she suggests that the following five factors can apply to cancer in cats, dogs and humans:
1. Genes Selting explains that “breed affects cancer risk just as race/ethnic origin can do so in human medicine.” This is because the genes among individuals in certain pet breeds, or human populations, are likely to be similar. “If said genes, such as tumor suppressor genes, are faulty and are related to the risk of acquiring a certain cancer, then it follows that these cancers will be overrepresented in a given population.” Siamese cats, for example, can be predisposed to intestinal and breast cancers.
2. Environment Selting suggests that cats that breathe tobacco smoke, for example, may have a heightened risk for lung diseases. “Cats are fastidious groomers, and every environmental contaminant that is present in the air and settles on the fur is then exposed to the cat’s mouth and system as they lick their fur.”
3. Diet Food may also contribute to disease prevention or instigation. “Feeding a good-quality diet logically can improve health, though no particular diet is known to abrogate cancer,” says Selting.
4. Lifestyle Countless studies conclude that exercise and stress levels can impact cancer.
5. Medical Care No tests can currently predict cancer occurrence in cats, but “early detection often offers a better prognosis,” says Selting. “Any change in a cat’s health should be investigated.”
Cancer Prevention for Cats and Humans
While much about cancer still remains a mystery, the new studies at least suggest a course of preventative action.
- Pay attention to genes. Consult with your doctor and your cat’s veterinarian and discuss the risk factors related to your ethnic origin and your cat’s breed.
- Do not smoke, and keep your home clean and free of potentially dangerous chemicals.
- Follow the latest research concerning food and cancer prevention.
- Both you and your pet need to exercise. Our bodies evolved to handle ample activity, so talk with your doctor and your cat’s veterinarian about what exercise would be best.
- Note physical changes in both you and your cat. Schedule regular medical appointments, which can detect cancer before symptoms even surface.
While Selting and others prove that studying cancer in cats can shed light on human cancer, researchers are also driven to learn more about cats. “Companion animals rely on humans for food and shelter, but they repay the favor with devotion and companionship. We are their voice and are responsible for their quality of life,” says Selting.
Jennifer Viegas is the managing editor of The Daily Cat. She is a journalist for Discovery News, the news service for the Discovery Channel, and has written more than 20 books on animals, health and other science-related topics.