The word in itself incites fear, but when the vet utters “cancer” in relation to your dog, it can be heart stopping. Unfortunately, many dog parents will hear them in their pet’s lifetimes. “It is estimated that one in four dogs will develop cancer, so it is very common,” says Dr. Danny Joffe, DVM, DABVP, emeritus at VCA Canada in Calgary, AB. “In dogs over 10 years of age, 50 percent of dogs will develop cancer, but it is important to note that some of these cancers are benign or are very manageable.”
Surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation are common approaches for dogs who need treatment. But for various reasons, they’re not a fit for everyone and every dog. Whether you’re taking a palliative approach to your dog’s cancer or looking for a complementary therapy, supplements are worth exploring with your vet.
Dr. Cindy Kneebone, DVM, of the East York Animal Clinic and Holistic Centre is a veterinarian who also holds diplomas in homeopathy, Chinese herbal medicine, and veterinary acupuncture. She has had patients with long remissions—greater than five years for three types of cancers—without the use of chemotherapy.
“In my experience, the best outcomes involve a combination of conventional and alternative medicine,” says Dr. Katherine Kramer, DVM, DABVP, and medical director of the VCA-Canada Vancouver Animal Wellness Hospital. “There are numerous supplements that can help boost the immune system and help ameliorate the side effects of conventional cancer therapy. If conventional medicine is not an option, then natural supplements can often be used as palliative therapy.
“Most of my practice consists of geriatric patients, which unfortunately means a large number of cancer cases,” she says. She often recommends supplements to complement the path of action taken by pet parents, and she sees results. “A majority of my cancer patients typically exceed their expected life span, sometimes by only a few months but sometimes by a year or more,” she says.
Supplements can also help with the side effects of chemotherapy. “Dogs typically do better with chemotherapy than humans but side effects are still common,” she says. Supplements can help with that, she says, but you need to talk to your vet, “Like anything, supplements can have side effects and interact with medications, especially chemotherapy agents,” she says. “It is extremely important to discuss these supplements with your veterinarian before giving them to your pet. Ideally, anti-cancer supplements should be started before a patient develops cancer.” She also notes that “the topic of supplements can be controversial since many natural supplements have not been thoroughly studied in dogs and there is not a lot of regulation or quality control in some products.”
Dr. Joffe agrees that while supplements can complement cancer therapies, on their own, they do not supress the cancer. “They can help a pet deal with side effects of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or surgery,” he says. “That is, these products can be adjunct therapy.”
That’s what Denise Tupman of Terrace, B.C. was thinking. In February 2019, her eight-year-old Border Collie, Rook, had blood in his urine and was diagnosed with prostate cancer. “My vet gave him 10 months at most and I just couldn’t believe that he was sick when, other than the bleeding, he seemed fine,” says Denise. “I was devastated with the diagnosis.” He was put on Piroxicam as a chemotherapy and Zentonil for liver support. Wanting to do more, Denise has given him chaga since the diagnosis after receiving recommendations from many people.
Chaga mushroom, a type of fungus that grows mainly on the bark of birch trees in cold climates including northern Canada and Alaska, happens to be harvested and processed just 45 minutes from where Denise lives, in Kitimat, B.C. “There’s lots in the woods around here,” she says.
“From what I have read, there are lots of antioxidants in chaga,” continues Denise, who buys it in liquid form. “It’s also supposed to be a stimulant for the immune system. It is marketed for people, but there is so much anecdotal info on use for dogs that they end up selling a lot to people with dogs. I give Rook a dose (one tablespoon in his food in the morning) and then give myself a dose too.”
Supplements for Dogs With Cancer
1. Omega 3 essential fatty acids Omega-3 fatty acids
serve as natural anti-inflammatories in cells. There is evidence in human cancer patients that these fatty acids can reduce postoperative infections and acute radiation side effects, as well as being able to kill cancer directly and reduce the proliferation of cancer cells. “Multiple studies highlight the benefits of omega 3s for not only cancer, but many inflammatory diseases,” says Dr. Kramer. “It is important to look for a quality product and introduce it gradually since high doses can cause diarrhea.”
2. Medicinal Mushrooms (including chaga, reishi, shiitake and turkey tail) “Mushrooms contain immune polysaccharides (also known as beta glucans) that have anti-tumor effects and prevent the spread of cancer by stimulating the immune system,” says Dr. Kramer. Chaga is said to help with aging and inflammation; shiitake, with lowering cholesterol, heart health, blood pressure and circulation; turkey tail, with immune support, cancer prevention and antioxidants; reishi, with regulating the immune system, fighting cancer and helping with sleep, anxiety, and depression; and cordyceps, with energy and muscle recovery.
Try this: I’m-Yunity medicinal mushroom supplement is clinically tested and proven to stabilize white blood cell counts. It effectively delivers the polysaccharopeptide (PSP) from Mycelia, improving energy levels and appetite.
3. Ashwagandha “An Ayurvedic herb also known as Indian ginseng, ashwagandha has been studied in mice and was found to have anti-cancer properties and can decrease neurodegeneration, inflammation, adrenal stress, and anxiety,” says Dr. Kramer. Withaferin, a bioactive compound in ashwagandha, is thought to promote the death of tumor cells and may be effective against several types of cancer.
4. Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM) There are several formulas that may benefit dogs with cancer, says Dr. Kramer. “Common cancer preparations are Hoxsey formula, Stasis breaker, HSA formula, and Xue Fu Zhu Yu Tang. Herbal formulas typically contain multiple herbs and have complex mechanisms of action. Recommendations for a specific formula is tailored to the individual patient. Combining herbs with other aspects of TCVM (acupuncture, massage, food therapy) can be quite effective,” she says.
5. Green tea extract Green tea contains polyphenols, which are strong antioxidants, and “antioxidants prevent DNA damage which can lead to cancer,” says Dr. Kramer. “It has been shown to inhibit certain tumor types in lab animals.” Studies have also shown green tea extract to regulate blood sugar and blood pressure, prevent disease, and keep skin and liver healthy.
6. Milk thistle Milk thistle has been found to have strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, says Dr. Kramer. “Typically used in dogs with liver disease, milk thistle aids with cellular repair and regeneration and detoxification,” she says. Milk thistle can be helpful for dogs undergoing chemotherapy as some chemotherapeutic agents also can be directly hepatotoxic. Many dogs will experience elevations in liver enzymes during chemo, with a smaller number developing liver failure. Studies have shown milk thistle to reduce liver enzyme elevations and allow patients to receive chemotherapy on schedule.
7. Turmeric “A member of the ginger family, turmeric has been used for ages due to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant actions,” says Dr. Kramer. Curcumin, the principal compound in turmeric, has been shown to inhibit cancer cell growth in vitro by many mechanisms, as well as relieving pain and inflammation, such as that caused by osteoarthritis. It is also used for hay fever, depression, high cholesterol, liver disease, and itching. Janet Cvitkovic of Ambridge, PA, made her Golden Retriever, Honey—who was diagnosed with lymphoma in March 2020—turmeric golden paste (turmeric, coconut oil, water and fresh ground pepper, frozen into cubes). Janet’s vets felt it helped with Honey’s stomach health, bones, and joints.
8. Lactoferrin “An iron-binding protein found in colostrum, lactoferrin is being researched as a promising agent in cancer prevention and treatment,” says Dr. Kramer. “It also has antibacterial and antiviral properties.” Lactoferrin is also used to treat diarrhea, inflammation of the liver caused by the hepatitis C virus, anemia, common colds, sepsis, and other conditions.
9. CBD A hemp-derived cannabinoid, CBD has become very popular for its health benefits for humans and dogs.
“CBD can be very helpful in relieving pain and nausea and stimulating appetite in most dogs,” says Dr. Kramer. “This can be very beneficial for providing not only palliative care but relieving the side effects of chemotherapy. There is also a large body of evidence that suggests CBD and many of the other chemicals in cannabis have specific anti-cancer effects. There are several very exciting studies underway looking at the effects of CBD on specific dog cancers.”
Although veterinary cannabinoid medicine has come a long way, and while CBD is legal in both the U.S. and Canada, veterinarians in Canada and the U.S. are not allowed to recommend, prescribe or dispense cannabis or CBD products. “However, veterinarians can engage in harm reduction education and advise on how to find regulated CBD products and how to use them safely,” says Dr. Kramer. “A majority of my geriatric and cancer patients receive a CBD supplement.”
How CBD Can Help CBD can help mitigate the symptoms of cancer and chemotherapy side effects, including pain, nausea, anorexia, and anxiety. If your dog is receiving chemo, check with your vet first for potential drug reactions.
Fish Oil Meets CBD. The Next Level Premier Infused CBD Fish oil from Iceland Pure is a unique blend of Sardine Anchovy oil, Shark Liver oil, and CBD oil formulated to reduce inflammation, boost the immune system, and help lubricate joints. ($82, icelandpure.com)
Immune Booster.HempImmunity chews from HempVet contain broad-spectrum, non-GMO hemp complex with naturally occurring CBD in combination with a proprietary, vet developed Immunopeptide that contains colostrum extract to support the immune system and liver and kidney function. ($40,hempvet.pet)
Hybrid Treatment.Formulated specifically to help treat cancer and tumours, the Health Drops 30/6 from Healthier Pet are a hybrid treatment that contains both 99.2% pure CBD isolate and Delta-8 THC. This Health Canada lab tested formulation is mixed with cold-pressed organic hemp seed oil and fish oil for added benefits. ($140,healthierpet.org)
In addition to medical treatments and supplements, a dog diagnosed with cancer would benefit from a tailored, vet-approved diet. It is always best to feed real food and use food as a source of antioxidants, says Dr. Kneebone. “Home cooked is best for chemotherapy dogs. The goal is for high quality minimally denatured highly bioavailable protein to keep the muscles and to have co-factors for the detoxification enzyme systems, with soluble and insoluble fiber to feed a patient’s microflora and fruits and vegetables for the antioxidants,” she says. “If the patient can maintain or gain weight, you might win the battle against cancer. Cancer burns up more caloric ATP than it gives back to the body which leads to cancer cachexia.” Simply – the best diet is always going to be the one the pet will eat, says Dr. Kneebone. “Even if they'll only eat a high-processed diet, there are still things one can do to boost the quality of the antioxidants for the pet.”
Self-Care For Pet Parents
It’s important for the pet parent not to neglect him or herself in all of this. “When faced with a cancer diagnosis for your pet, its important to take care of yourself. If you’re not cared for, you can’t make the right decisions for your pet. “Don't ever think that it was something you did wrong,” says Dr. Kneebone. “We are all faced with the same pollution, the same nutrient-depleted and pesticide-filled food, the same chemical toxins, the same EMF radiation, the same emotional issues,” she says. “One must get over the shock of the diagnosis and the fear of the family pet’s mortality. Our loved one doesn't always know they are so ill, and our anxiety upsets them too. If cancer is suspected, get it confirmed. Not all cancers are malignant and not all that looks like cancer actually is.” Dr. Kneebone recently had a patient, a large breed dog, that had an X-ray for a limp. The radiograph showed an aggressive pattern highly suggestive of bone cancer.
“The client asked for my opinion. I didn't think the radiograph was classical in appearance so I advised a bone biopsy,” she says. “Turned out to be an aggressive arthritic lesion. The dog had a surgery and is alive and recovering. So, I always advise a biopsy be performed to confirm the diagnosis.”
Secondly, get your support network together for your emotional support and your financial support, as diagnostics and treatments come at a high cost, says Dr. Kneebone. “You want positive people with you all the way.”
That’s the way Denise sees it. These days, Rook is doing well, with no noticeable decline in his health or stamina, Denise reports. “I’m thankful he has shown no signs of slowing down and his latest bloodwork looks very good,” says Denise. The vet says he can’t feel the tumour—he was very surprised! My vet is pleased to hear he is getting chaga too—he says it certainly can’t hurt to try everything.”
Cancer Supplements: Talk to Your Vet!
Dr. Kneebone has two notes of caution for pet owners who are looking at supplements for their pets. Supplements can be difficult to administer due to taste, can be costly and may not be produced by best manufacturing standards, she says. “Some herbals can be toxic and others shouldn't be used with chemotherapy. Cheaper products can be more harmful than beneficial… I don't want people to go out, purchase and use without guidance by someone who knows how they are detoxified, how they interact with each other and how they affect chemotherapeutics.”
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