“Dogs are tough!” the veterinary expert in gastrointestinal disease loudly proclaimed. This was the third or fourth time he had repeated this phrase during the course of his five-hour lecture.

Dr. Bianucci and I (Perry Jameson) sponsor an eight-hour continuing education event for local veterinarians each February. As veterinarians we must get 30 hours of continuing ed every two years and this event helps us all get some of those hours without having to leave town.

Having practiced veterinary medicine for 27 years now, the information is not new to me at many of these events, or does not resonate. However his repeated stress on the fact that dogs are tough did.

What he was stressing is that dogs can be sick and even in pain and we cannot tell by their behavior. It is common for me to diagnose a dog with cancer that has already spread to multiple organs and the parents did not even notice. They will ask how the condition could have been seen sooner when we might have been able to help the dog.

What the speaker also meant by saying that dogs are tough was that they do not complain. For a symptom you and I will whine and moan about, your dog will continue to play and eat normally. However, humans tend to seek medical attention for the slightest abnormal feeling.

This characteristic of dogs (and cats, too) occurs for multiple reasons. The most likely cause is instinctive — when animals show weakness, they are left behind or picked on by the other animals. The weakest is the last to get to eat or straggles behind when the group moves. So deep down it is a survival mechanism.

For our domesticated pets I feel part of this behavior also hinges on their relationships with their humans. Dogs live to please us. They want to make us happy and if they appear distressed for any reason they learn that it distresses us, too. There have been multiple occasions through my life when I have been upset and the dog whom I shared my life with would come put her head on my lap or lay by my side in an attempt to comfort me.

So this explains why they mask symptoms, but how can we diagnose a dog with terminal cancer sooner?

Well, since dogs will not show us they are ill until it is severe, and obviously cannot verbally tell us, we need to do our best to help them.

First find a veterinarian you trust, can speak to openly, and have them examine your pet every year for its entire life. They should get a complete history from you every year.

Let them know of any issues that have occurred, even if you thought they were minor. Discuss any medications you are giving, those they have prescribed and those you have decided to give on your own, so be honest. Let them know of any changes in behavior, diet, appetite, water intake, urine output and bowel movements.

They will perform a thorough physical examination, which if it is the same doctor, the exam can be compared to those performed previously. Unfortunately for your dog this should always include a rectal exam.

Once dogs and cats reach the age of 7 years they should have a CBC, profile, thyroid level and urinalysis checked annually. Hopefully they will always remain normal but this will start providing a “baseline” for what is normal for your pet. The veterinarian can then watch for trends that would be concerning even if the actual values remained within the normal range.

There are certain breeds that are predisposed to certain cancers. An example is golden retrievers, who are known to develop a malignant, usually fatal, cancer of the spleen called hemangiosarcoma.

The problem is we usually do not diagnose these (remember dogs are tough) until the tumor ruptures and they hemorrhage into their abdomens. They present for sudden collapse or weakness. To our eyes they are normal one day and near death the next. Many times the tumor also has spread to the liver, lungs or heart, making surgical removal of all the masses impossible.

The only way to find these tumors earlier would be to image them on an annual basis. Should we be performing abdominal ultrasounds on these dogs annually once they reach 6-7 years of age? There is no information saying this is beneficial, but maybe removing the tumors before they spread could save a dog’s life.

It is better (and ultimately less expensive) to have a cat with a heart murmur checked when she is asymptomatic rather than when she is struggling to breathe and requires hospitalization and oxygen therapy. The asymptomatic cat can be started on medications to slow the onset of heart failure.

Ask your veterinarian if your dog or cat is predisposed to any certain diseases and be as proactive as you can about monitoring for them. Remember dogs and cats are tough, and like to hide symptoms from us. A minor symptom in them could be the only outward sign they give you about a serious disease.

Dr. Henri Bianucci and Dr. Perry Jameson are with Veterinary Specialty Care LLC. Send questions to petdocs@postandcourier.com.

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