Cancer and Diet…Maintaining Your Pet’s Quality of Life

In the last 6 years, I’ve lost 3 dogs to cancer…the third, only 6 weeks ago–my handsome greyhound. Losing the big guy has made me think a lot about when it’s the right time to say goodbye. Did we hold on too long? Did we let go too soon?

My vet and I are on the same page about this tough decision. It’s not the quantity of years your pet has lived; it’s the quality of life they had in those years.

And the quality of a pet’s life with cancer can turn bad fast.

My first dog to die from cancer lived for a few years after she was diagnosed, and had a great quality of life until the day before we put her to sleep.

My second dog suffered in silence, never letting on she was probably in pain for months until one day she started to seem unbearably sick.

Our last dog died only 3 months after being diagnosed. For him, we made the decision it was time when he stopped eating and lost interest in life.

Although their cancers were all different, there was one common thread running between all 3 of my dogs. They all suffered from cancer cachexia, the loss of body fat and muscle that occurs with cancer, even if the amount of food they’re consuming doesn’t change.

Cancer cachexia

Unfortunately, cachexia often results in poor quality of life.

The wasting that occurs with cachexia causes lethargy and a loss of interest in daily activities like going for walks, playing fetch, swimming and romping with their other four legged friends.

To me, once that starts happening…it’s time. The quality of my dog’s life is gone and they’re starting to suffer.

Cancer cachexia will also compromise the immune system, which can mean death from infection and other secondary illnesses.

So how can we manage the effects of cancer cachexia in our pets, canine or feline, and maintain their quality of life for as long as possible?

First, we have to understand a little bit about how cancer works.

Cancer affects your pet’s metabolism

Cancer causes the body to metabolize carbohydrates, fat and proteins differently than in a healthy body.

Cancer cells thrive on sugar. They use sugar for energy. Sugar helps the cells grow and reproduce. When the cancer uses sugar for energy, lactate is produced. This is a waste product that poisons the cancer’s host…your pet.

Lactate depletes your pet’s energy. This weakens the body and allows the cancer to grow. It weakens the immune system and allows infections to take hold.   It saps your pet’s strength making them lethargic.

In addition to sugar (carbohydrates), the tumor needs protein. But your pet needs protein too, and a lack of it will reduce muscle mass. Your pet needs to consume more protein than the tumor is using to maintain muscle. Feeding a diet with a greater percentage of calories from high-quality protein will help.

The body fat lost due to cachexia is particularly problematic because the body will go into its fat stores to replace that lost fat. Your pet’s body relies on those fat stores to be available during short-term fasts when they aren’t feeling well and don’t want to eat. Adding the right types of fat to the diet, like omega-3s, is necessary to help offset the fat loss that comes with cachexia.

And since tumors thrive on sugar, carbohydrates should be kept to a minimum.

The right diet may help

Knowing what we know about cancer cachexia, we can manage the effects of cachexia with the right diet, even if we can’t reverse it.

According to the website, a diet consisting of 50-60% of calories from fat, 30-50% of calories from high quality protein, and the remaining calories from carbohydrates offers the right balance.

But cachexia causes weight loss even when our pets are eating normally and their appetites are unaffected. As you can imagine, having cancer can cause your pet to not want to eat.

Some times the treatments and meds can be nauseating. And some times the disease itself can prevent eating. Cancers to the mouth can make eating painful. And stomach cancers can make eating problematic, too.

Some times a pet can develop a learned food aversion. They may associate eating with something bad like taking medicine, if you happen to put it in their food or give it to them soon after eating. Obviously, you want to try to minimize food aversions as much as possible.

Keep mealtime as pleasant as it can be for your pet during this time when eating just may not have the same appeal it used to.

And now more than ever, water is the most essential nutrient you can give your pet. Be sure they always have a full bowl of fresh clean water available to them.

You may also want to talk to your vet about the benefits of supplementing with arginine and glutamine, 2 amino acids. Arginine helps the immune system and glutamine maintains the health of the intestinal tract. If you have a cat with cancer, vitamin B12 may be beneficial.

It’s always a good idea to talk to your vet before giving your pet a supplement. But this is especially true when your pet has cancer.

We can’t keep our pets alive forever, as much as we wish we could. And a cancer diagnosis is devastating. Knowing you gave your pet the best life possible with the least amount of suffering is the most you can hope for. Minimizing the effects of cancer cachexia can go a long way to accomplishing that.

If you’re looking for a food that provides the right balance of protein, fat and carbs to manage your pet’s cancer, consider Husse’s Valp, Valp Maxi and Valp Mini for dogs; or Exclusive Lean and Exclusive Lean Sensitive for cats. Although the dog food is formulated for puppies, they are excellent choices for an adult dog with cancer.

Have you had a pet with cachexia? How did you manage it? Tell us in the comment section above. Your experience may help someone else going through it.

2 thoughts on “Cancer and Diet…Maintaining Your Pet’s Quality of Life

  1. Over 2-3 weeks My dog started acting fussy with food but still eating- that wasnt that off base as she had IBD and would have days like that every 4-6 months and rebounded quickly . A couple nights she woke up in middle of night to drink water, but it started to get warmer in house so kept an eye for a few days. She was back to normal for a week or so and then didn’t want to eat her food for a day so we went to vet. She showed increased liver values but nothing that was alarming vet- they too thought it could be IBD flare up. Sent us home with antiemetic and fluids. We followed up with internal med doc where I pointed out swollen inguinal lymphnode and he pointed out her decrease in muscle . It didn’t reflect in actual weight on scale, it was the change in her body and muscle mass/wasting. She got ultrasound which showed multiple masses in abdomenal regions and suspected in liver, spleen, bladder, pancreas. The chest X-ray showed masses in lung region which confirms metastasis. The vet was shocked as she wasn’t presenting clinically as what was seen on ultrasound. Fine needle aspirate biopsies came back as carcinoma suspected disseminated adenocarcinoma. In the 2 weeks after despite pain meds, anitnausea, fluids, appetite stimulants and the best variety of foods possible she was not wanting to eat and drink as much. The scariest was the rapid muscle wasting despite activity. She lost all the fat in her face, neck, temporal region, legs rapidly. This was cachexia (familiar based on my HIV/AIDS work) and it was fast moving and relentless despite our efforts. I think that pet owners need to learn more about it isn’t always about weight on scale, especially if a dog has ascites and or edema (fluid build up). When cancer presents with cachexia, it is safe to say it is very advanced. I say a chest X-ray and ultrasound every year after age 5 is better than any pet insurance plan out there (however both in conjunction would be ideal!). Missing my best friend but want to help others. A lot of internal malignancies are very good at hiding themselves with no symptoms- so if you have the means, do the early prevention with chest X-rays and ultrasound to catch things ❤️


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