Prevention is the Best Defense
Prevention, of course, is the best defense against cancer. Besides
giving our dogs the healthy basics of life such as
good food, clean filtered water, regular exercise and grooming,
we can do many other things to keep them well. These
include early spaying and neutering, providing regular
exams, scheduling biannual exams for dogs 8 years and
older, having frequent oral exams, and paying close
attention to changes in eating and bowel habits.
Surveys show that cancer is the leading cause of death in the
Golden Retriever breed, Hemangiosarcoma and
Lymphosarcoma leading the list. This has brought the Golden's average lifespan down to
10½ years. While we believe they should be long-lived (12-16 years) and healthy and
active during most of this time, no screening test for cancer is currently available. One
approach is for breeders to select bitches from lines where more than 75% of the
dogs in the pedigree lived to at least 11 (longer than the golden average). Breeders can
also research the cause of death on as many dogs in the pedigree *and their siblings* as
possible, and additionally breed to older males who have already reached the average age.
Unfortunately, this is seldom done as many want to breed to today's top-winning dogs.
Rather, we need to be breeding to their sires.
Is Cancer Prevention Possible?
If so, experts are certain the key will lie in a healthy immune system.
CJ Puotinen, March 2006
What could be better than curing your dog’s cancer? That’s easy! How about
avoiding the illness in the first place?
No one has done any clinical trials or statistical studies that prove you can
prevent cancer in at-risk dogs. “But common sense and clinical experience make a
strong case for avoiding anything that exposes an animal to known carcinogens or
weakens the immune system,” says Stacey Hershman, DVM, a holistic housecall
veterinarian in Rockland County, New York.
Just like their human companions, dogs live longer, healthier lives when they
eat the right foods, get enough exercise, breathe clean air, drink clean water,
and stay away from harmful substances. They may also be helped by
immune-boosting herbs, supplements, special foods, and a few things you might
not have thought of. Here’s a review of recommendations from holistic
veterinarians and other experts.
An important first step in selecting a puppy or adult dog is learning everything
you can about the immediate family – parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts,
uncles, cousins, etc. Some breeds are notoriously prone to cancer, and some
lines within those breeds reinforce the trend. Look for good genes and good
health when selecting puppies or adopting adult dogs.
Of course, rescued dogs seldom come with this documentation, and even the
best-bred dog can develop cancer. But starting with good raw material can reduce
the risk – and if you know that your dog may be prone to certain types of
cancer, do what you can, starting today, to make that diagnosis less likely.
The statistics are convincing: female dogs have a significantly lower risk of
developing mammary tumors if they are spayed before coming into season for the
first or second time, and testicular cancer is obviously not a problem in
But while early spaying reduces the risk of mammary cancer, it quadruples the
risk of developing cardiac hemangiosarcomas (vascular tumors) compared to intact
females. In addition, a study of 3,218 dogs neutered before one year of age
showed that both males and females had a significantly increased chance of
developing osteosarcoma (bone tumors) compared to intact males and females.
Understanding your dog’s inherited risks can help you make informed decisions
about whether and when to schedule surgery.
A minimal vaccination protocol is recommended by holistic vets and veterinary
colleges. Increasingly, overvaccination has been identified as a health risk.
For Dr. Hershman and most holistic veterinarians, routine vaccinations top the
list of things to avoid. “Vaccines really disrupt the immune system,” she says,
“especially combination vaccines that are given annually.” Like many holistic
veterinarians, she recommends a single-dose parvovirus vaccination at age 10 to
12 weeks, followed by a single-dose distemper vaccination four weeks later and a
rabies vaccination after age six months.
“I check the effectiveness of these shots with blood titer tests,” she says. “If
immunity is strong, there’s no need to revaccinate. If it’s weak, I repeat
whatever the puppy needs for protection.”
Label directions warn veterinarians not to vaccinate a sick animal; Dr. Hershman
includes injured or stressed animals in that caution. “Vaccinating a dog who’s
being spayed, neutered, or treated for an injury is totally irresponsible,” she
says. “You want the animal to be healthy, with a strong vital force, not in a
weakened, vulnerable state, when you introduce substances designed to challenge
the immune system.”
Responding to decades of research by immunologists, veterinary textbooks and
colleges no longer recommend annual vaccinations for dogs, but most veterinary
clinics continue to prescribe them. “They routinely prescribe antibiotics,
steroids, and other symptom-suppressing drugs, too,” says Dr. Hershman, “and
those take a toll on the immune system. Whenever you can use nutrition,
homeopathy, acupuncture, medicinal herbs, or other natural therapies instead of
symptom-suppressing drugs, you strengthen the dog’s immunity. A strong immune
system is the best defense against cancer.”
The right diet
Advocates of home-prepared diets for dogs have long claimed that their animals
are healthier than they would be on commercial pet food. Beth Taylor and Steve
Brown, authors of See Spot Live Longer, agree. They blame dry and canned dog
foods for a host of problems because they usually contain inferior-quality
proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, a variety of toxins, highly processed grains,
chemical preservatives, allergens, and other questionable ingredients.
Many veterinarians blame grain-based pet foods for diabetes, digestive problems,
and other canine disorders. After all, the canine digestive tract evolved on a
diet of prey animals, consisting mostly of meat and bones, not wheat and corn.
Every few years, aflatoxin, which grows on corn, rice, and other grains,
contaminates pet foods and kills dogs. In addition to causing liver damage, aflatoxin is a potent carcinogen, so
even “safe” levels that don’t cause obvious disease outbreaks can contribute,
over time, to cancer.
Another carcinogen found in grain-based foods is acrylamide, once believed to
exist only in industrial waste. However, acrylamide has recently been found
almost everywhere in the human diet. This tasteless, invisible by-product is
formed when high-carbohydrate foods are fried or baked at high temperatures.
French fries and potato chips contain the highest concentrations, but acrylamide
occurs in breads and breakfast cereals as well.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers acrylamide so dangerous
that it set the “safe level” for human consumption at almost zero, with the
maximum safe level in drinking water set at 0.5 parts per billion. A small
serving of French fries contains over 400 parts per billion. No one has tested
pet foods, but any processed foods that contain carbohydrates, especially those
extruded at high temperature like grain-based kibble or canned under high heat
and pressure, pose a risk.
“Considering how ubiquitous these carcinogens are,” says San Francisco-area dog
health researcher Mary Straus, “and considering that cancer cells thrive on
carbohydrates, avoiding grains altogether may be one way to help lower the risk
In addition to reducing levels of carbohydrates and carcinogens, feeding a
home-prepared diet of pasture-fed, organically produced ingredients insures that your dog will not ingest
pesticide and drug residues. Food prepared at home from conventionally farmed
ingredients may not be free of pesticide residues, but it is unlikely to contain
chemical preservatives, artificial colors or flavors, or the by-products of
In his book,
Work Wonders: Feed Your Dog Raw Meaty Bones, Australian
veterinarian Tom Lonsdale observes, “We need more information about the cancer
epidemic in domestic dogs. However, basic nutritional and medical principles
tell us that diet is the likely main factor. Without waiting for extra
information, and because cancer often takes years to develop, it’s best to start
puppies on a cancer-prevention diet early. From the whelping box to the grave,
let ‘Prevention, not treatment’ be our motto.”
Antioxidant supplements, which help protect the body from damage by free
radicals, have many health benefits, including cancer protection. Best-selling
antioxidant supplements include vitamins A, C, and E, beta carotene, lycopene,
and the mineral selenium. Bear in mind that some alternative cancer treatments,
such as artemisinin, are not compatible with antioxidants.
Food-source antioxidants, vitamins, and other nutrients derived from whole foods
are recommended by many holistic veterinarians because they are recognized as
food by the body and are more easily assimilated than synthetic vitamins grown
in a laboratory. The words “whole food” or “food source” indicate natural rather
than synthetic ingredients.
One of the simplest cancer-resisting supplements you can
add to your dog’s food, according to
Bruce Fife, ND, is
coconut oil. Dr. Fife, the author of several books about
coconut’s health benefits, recommends feeding dogs 1
teaspoon of coconut oil per 10 pounds of body weight per
day in divided doses. That’s 1 tablespoon (3 teaspoons)
for a 30-pound dog and 2 tablespoons for a 60-pound dog.
“The medium-chain fatty acids in coconut oil help treat or prevent all kinds of
illnesses,” he says, “and they have significant anti-tumor properties. Giving
your dog coconut oil every day is inexpensive health insurance.”
Dried shredded coconut (the unsweetened kind) is an excellent source of fiber,
another factor in cancer prevention. Try adding a teaspoon to a tablespoon of
shredded coconut to your dog’s home-prepared food. If feeding dry food, add a
little water or soak the shredded coconut first.
Vegetables are controversial ingredients because they’re hard for dogs to
digest. But a simple lactofermentation process not only improves the
digestibility and assimilation of vegetables, it increases their vitamin content
and makes them a valuable source of beneficial bacteria. In fact, the treated
vegetables are both a prebiotic (food that feeds beneficial bacteria) and
probiotic (food that contains beneficial bacteria). In Europe, lactofermented
vegetables are the key ingredient in a popular cancer treatment.
To make lactofermented vegetables (see “It’s All in How You Make It,” March
2001), simply grate, shred, or puree carrots and other vegetables, add 1½
teaspoons unrefined sea salt per quart (4 cups) of vegetables, add the contents
of a probiotic supplement such as acidophilus, and press everything in a bowl or
glass jar until juice covers the vegetables. (The task is made considerably
easier with a Japanese salad press.)
Close the jar tightly or, if using a bowl, cover
vegetables with a plate weighted by a jar filled with
water. Let stand at room temperature until the
vegetables give off a vinegar-like fragrance; this will
usually take two to three days, depending on their consistency and room temperature. Refrigerate.
Use to replace vegetables in any home-prepared recipe, or add 1 tablespoon to ¼
cup lactofermented vegetables to each meal.
Take two individuals from the same litter of puppies of a breed or family that
has a high cancer risk. Place one with a family of heavy smokers who live next
to a busy highway, use lawn chemicals, drink fluoridated tap water, and have
high-current power lines in the backyard. Place the other pup on a pristine
organic farm. Feed both the same diet and let several years go by. You don’t
have to be an oncologist to know which dog is more likely to develop cancer.
Second-hand smoke is a serious problem for pets, especially those who spend
hours every day at the feet of their smoking companions. “I tell all my clients
who smoke that they’re putting their dogs’ health at risk,” says Dr. Hershman.
“I saw it happen in my own family, and it breaks my heart. Second-hand smoke is
as dangerous to dogs as it is to infants.”
Busy highways, driveways, parking lots, and areas where trucks and cars idle are
dangerous for dogs because of gas and diesel exhaust. A dog’s nose is much
closer to the ground – and exhaust pipes – than the human nose, so dogs are more
likely to inhale damaging particles.
Lawn treatments and agricultural chemicals are known to cause cancer in animals. Dogs pick up pesticides,
herbicides, and other chemicals through their feet and, when they sniff the
ground, through their noses. Keep your dog off the grass in chemically treated
neighborhoods, and explore organic alternatives for your own lawn and garden.
Even household chemicals pose a threat to our canine companions. According to
the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, more than 150 chemicals found in
the average home are linked to birth defects, cancer, and psychological
abnormalities. If labels carry a “keep away from children and pets” warning, or
if product labels suggest they should be used only in well-ventilated areas,
look for alternatives.
Fluoride has gotten such good press over the decades that most Americans think
it’s essential for healthy teeth. It’s even added to some canine toothpastes.
But in many countries, fluoride is considered a hazardous industrial waste, and
its use in water supplies is prohibited. In September 2005, eleven unions
representing more than 7,000 scientists and researchers at the EPA called for a
national moratorium on the fluoridation of America’s drinking water, citing
Use topical pesticides only as often as absolutely necessary – for dogs who
regularly hike in tick-infested woods or brush, for example. Don’t apply
monthly; use only as needed to protect your dog.
December 2005 analysis of more than 22 million tap water quality tests,
most of which were required under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, found
that water suppliers across the U.S. detected 260 contaminants in public tap
water. Of the 141 unregulated contaminants detected in water supplies between
1998 and 2003, 52 are linked to cancer, 41 to reproductive toxicity, 36 to
developmental toxicity, and 16 to immune system damage. Water contaminated with
83 agricultural pollutants, including pesticides and fertilizer ingredients,
flows through the taps of over 200 million Americans in 41 states.
Installing a water filter or using uncontaminated, unfluoridated bottled water
sounds like a very good idea! So does avoiding fluoridated toothpaste.
Regarding sources of electromagnetic radiation, a study published in 1995 in the
American Journal of Epidemiology compared dogs treated at a veterinary teaching
hospital for histologically confirmed lymphoma. Electric wire codes and magnetic
fields were measured at the homes of 93 diagnosed cases and 137 controls, and a
correlation was found between magnetic fields emitted by power lines and
electrical appliances and the incidence of lymphoma. Dogs living in homes with
very high current codes had the highest risk, while dogs living in homes with
buried or underground power lines had a lower risk.
Immunologist and veterinarian Richard Pitcairn, DVM, PhD, author of
Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats, considers all
sources of radiation (including repeated diagnostic X-rays) dangerous because
their effects are cumulative in the body. He recommends that dogs not be allowed
to rest near a color TV set. Fortunately, the new flat-screen TVs and computer
monitors emit much lower levels of electromagnetic radiation than older cathode
ray tube models. In general, the fewer electrical appliances in close proximity
to pets, the better.
Anyone who lives where fleas, ticks, or mosquitoes are a problem knows what a
challenge they can be. Unfortunately, topical and systemic pest-control products
contribute to a host of health problems, including increased cancer risks.
A well-balanced raw diet can help a dog repel parasites, but sometimes the
attack is overwhelming.
“I definitely prefer natural alternatives to pesticide sprays or products like
Frontline, which make the entire dog toxic to biting parasites,” says Dr.
Hershman. “But alternatives don’t always work. One of my patients is a raw-fed
Search and Rescue dog who often picked up more than 200 ticks on training
weekends. He’s a German Shepherd Dog, so finding and removing them all was a
time-consuming, stressful challenge. After his owner tried every natural
repellent we could find, none of which solved the problem, he now applies K9
Advantix, a systemic pesticide that repels fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes, on a
reduced dosage schedule only when needed.
“When it comes to cancer prevention,” she says, “the less often you use
conventional pesticides, the better. A good diet and natural repellents are
always worth trying first.”
Several holistic cancer treatments, such as those described in “What Are the
Alternatives?” (February 2006), can be used to help healthy dogs remain
cancer-free. The thinking here is that cancer cells develop all the time, even
in healthy bodies, but they don’t create problems until conditions encourage
their growth. Preventive treatments disrupt cancer cells before they take up
residence in vulnerable parts of the body.
Henry Lai, PhD, the University of Washington researcher who first tested artemisinin (an extract of Artemesia annua, or annual wormwood) on dogs with
cancer, takes artemisinin as a preventive himself and has tested it on
“It is hard to recommend a protocol for cancer prevention,” he says, “but, based
on studies on rats, a good dose could probably be somewhere between 8 milligrams
of artemisinin per kilogram of body weight per day at the high end and 10 mg/kg
once per week at the low end. I take 100 mg per day for 10 days each month. Even
though this approach hasn’t been tested yet on humans or canines, I think it
Following Dr. Lai’s example, a dog weighing 60 to 75 pounds could take 50 mg
artemisinin for 10 days each month, and the amount could be increased or
decreased as needed for larger and smaller dogs.
The antioxidant Protocel, also discussed in last month’s article, can be used in
a similar way.
According to Illinois veterinarian Dan King, DVM (217-485-7387), “This should be effective
because Protocel works on early cancer cells as an antimetastatic. That is, it
deals with individual cells and prevents them from spreading and growing.
Because it works slowly, I would use Protocel on a preventive maintenance
schedule of ¼ teaspoon twice per day for a dog weighing 50 to 75 pounds for
three months on and six months off. Small dogs could take 1/8 teaspoon twice per
day for the same length of time.”
Ask a dozen experts about their favorite herbs for cancer prevention and you’ll
generate a list too long to publish here. But a few herbal products are so
effective that they are recommended by almost everyone.
“Many mushrooms have anti-tumor and immune-stimulating activity,” says
Carol Falck, VMD, of Pompano Beach, Florida. “They have been used medicinally for
thousands of years in China and Japan, and they work very well for dogs.”
Dr. Falck often uses
Myco-Immune by Thorne Research, which is a liquid extract
of seven medicinal mushrooms, including cordyceps, reishi, shiitake, maitake,
and turkey tail. “This combination stimulates the immune system in several ways,
helping it resist the growth of cancer.”
She also recommends a green tea extract (G.T.-Ex by Thorne Research) because
green tea enhances cellular immune function, increases natural killer cell
activity, and may inhibit some cancer cell lines.
Another favorite supplement for dogs at risk of cancer is curcumin, says Dr.
Falck. “Curcumin is the yellow pigment in turmeric, the spice that gives curry
its distinctive color. Both turmeric and curcumin have been shown to inhibit
tumor growth. I also like astragalus, an herb with strong immune-stimulating
properties. I use several Chinese herbal formulas containing astragalus,
depending on the patient, including Astragalus for Animals by
Garlic is well known and often used for its cancer-inhibiting properties. Small
amounts of fresh minced garlic or aged garlic extract can be added to any dog’s
dinner. Garlic is an ingredient in Herbal Compounds tablets created by
de Bairacli Levy, whose Natural Rearing philosophy pioneered home-prepared diets
and alternative medicine for animals.
“This formula is very antiseptic,” says Natural Rearing advocate Marina
Zacharias, who imports the product from England. “It definitely helps the immune
For patients at high risk, Zacharias likes a Chinese formula called
its antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-tumor properties. “I also use
a probiotic called Florenz and, over the animals’ life span, a form of liver
support given to match their needs, such as homeopathic
Zacharias says she has seen good results from prevention efforts taken to
protect individual dogs in high-risk families. “Of course, there is no empirical
evidence to say that these measures prevented cancer, but when we see a
good-quality, healthy life, it’s evidence that the efforts are warranted. We all
have to die from something, but when we see cancer in a naturally raised dog,
it’s usually when the dog is older, at the end of its natural lifespan.”
Closely related to herbal medicine is
Aromatherapy. San Diego holistic
veterinarian Stephen Blake recommends massaging the paw pads of at-risk dogs
once or twice per day with a drop of blended frankincense, sandalwood, and
Douglas fir essential oils. For best results, use organic or wildcrafted oils
from reputable distributors. “These essential oils are great for detoxification and for supporting the
immune system,” he says.
Although few of us appreciate the important role it plays, the lymph system is a
key factor in cancer prevention. Lymph is a clear fluid, similar to blood but
lacking red blood cells. It contains the immune system’s lymphocytes (T-cells
and B-cells) and circulates through channels that carry waste to the lymph
nodes, filtering bacteria and other toxins.
The more lymph circulation is impaired, the less efficiently the body removes
toxins and the more favorable conditions are for the growth of cancer. Lymph
circulation improves with active exercise and deep, diaphragmatic breathing.
Gentle to vigorous brushing that moves from the feet to the heart is a simple
addition to daily grooming that also stimulates lymph circulation.
“Exercise is so important,” says Dr. Falck. “Exercise stimulates the immune
system and releases endorphins, and an added benefit of consistent exercise is
increasing gastrointestinal motility, which helps normalize stools and eliminate
toxins from the body. It also facilitates weight management, which is important
because obesity is a risk factor for some types of cancer.”
You probably haven’t thought about light as a cancer preventive, but it may well
be. Not just any light, though. Unfiltered natural light, Mother Nature’s
full-spectrum light, activates the hypothalamus and keeps the entire endocrine
All dogs can benefit from access to the full-spectrum light found outdoors,
which activates the hypothalamus and keeps the endocrine system balanced.
When photobiologist and time-lapse photography pioneer
John Ott began to
photograph living plants, he discovered that depriving them of unfiltered
natural light interfered with their normal growth and reproduction.
He soon learned that the health of fish, birds, reptiles, and other animals
(including humans) is adversely affected by insufficient light and by the wrong
kind of light, especially fluorescent light. Ott coined the term
“malillumination” to describe the phenomenon, which is now known to suppress
immune function and contribute to skin damage, cancer, and other problems.
Light enters the eyes not only to facilitate vision but also to activate the
hypothalamus. This region of the brain, in turn, controls the nervous and
endocrine systems, which regulate functions throughout the body.
Exposure to natural light, preferably for several hours daily, is necessary for
your dog’s health. A shady screened porch, the shelter of a tree, even an open
window or doorway can give the dog’s body what it needs. Some plastics allow the
transmission of full-spectrum natural light, but glass windows, windshields, and
sunglasses (which we hope your dog doesn’t wear) do not.
For many healthcare experts, emotional well-being is as important to cancer
prevention as diet and exercise.
“I believe strongly that emotions are linked to general health via the immune
system,” says Dr. Falck. “We can support our pets emotionally by encouraging
social interaction with people and other animals, by providing a safe and loving
environment with balanced opportunities for play and rest, and by minimizing
Dr. Blake strongly stresses the importance of positive thinking.
“Never talk to an animal as though he or she is a tumor instead of a spiritual
being,” he says. “Negative thoughts generate negative energy, which feeds the
disease and weakens the patient’s vital force. No matter how serious the risk of
cancer, it’s important to picture your dog as well and happy, not sick, and to
engage him or her in meaningful conversation and meaningful activities every
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