Carolynne Kruckman-Gatesy, DVM, MS, DACVR (Radiation Oncology)
In these uncertain times of viral infectious disease (I’m talking about you, COVID-19), one thing that doesn’t stop moving is cancer. Oral tumors in pets can be hard to diagnose, because – while Fluffy may love to sneak in those French kisses or pant right in your face in case you have a treat on you – most pets aren’t willing to let us examine their tonsils while they are awake.
There are some things you can watch for in your older canine or feline companions, including: bad breath (like knock-a-buzzard-off-a-branch bad breath), excessive drooling, bleeding from the mouth, decreased appetite, dropping food, or seeing a swelling of the upper or lower jaw. Aside from swelling of the jaw or a visible mass, all of these other signs can ALSO be related to dental disease or other, less cancer-y, diseases. But never fear! Your friendly, neighborhood veterinarian is…. Well, you get it. A sedated oral exam is worth its weight in gold.
Because, on a serious note, tumors in the mouth are not only difficult to find, they can impact our pets’ quality of life drastically. When was the last time your Golden or Labrador retriever missed a meal? Never? Yeah, we thought so. Or your Jack Russell terrier didn’t want to play tug-o-war today? That’s unheard of! While this can be scary, know many times there are options. Your veterinarian will be able to help you decide how to sample a mass in the mouth, and if surgery, radiation therapy, a combination of both, or none-of-the-above is the best option for your pet and your family. One size does NOT fit all. More treatment options may be available today than there were 10 years ago.
Now, as a card-carrying radiation oncologist, I will gush over the amazing, non-invasive qualities of radiation therapy for any number of tumor types and locations. However, if you want to get rid of your pet’s oral tumor for as long as possible, a consultation with a veterinary surgeon is most likely in your future. Radiation fits into treatment often as an addition to surgery if the surgeon cannot remove everything (common even with the best of surgeons), or as a minimally-invasive, palliative option.
So, let’s recap (i.e. I’m re-watching Grey’s Anatomy for the umpteenth time while sheltering in place and Izzy just cut the LVAD wire so let’s wrap it up!!)
- Watch for signs of oral discomfort in your venerable pooch or kitty, especially if it is out of character for them. This includes changes in their eating habits, bleeding from the mouth, lots of drooling, or bad breath (and a breath mint just won’t cut it).
- Seek an exam with your primary care veterinarian. Sedation will be needed for a thorough oral exam. No, really. I promise.
- Get a sample of the mass if possible! The prognosis with oral tumors ranges from excellent to scary.
- Therapies have come a long way in recent years. Seek a consultation with a surgeon or oncologist.
Carolynne Kruckman-Gatesy is a boarded Radiation Oncologist at Veterinary Specialty Center.