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Nutrition and Cancer: What's the Scoop

Pet Column for the week of January 25, 2010

Related information:

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ashley Mitek
Information Specialist

Source - Jacqueline M. Wypij, DVM, DACVIM (oncology)
Whether you want to prevent your pet from developing cancer, or are the caretaker of a beloved animal that has recently been diagnosed, nutrition can play an important role in both situations.

If you are like most owners, once you hear a dreaded diagnosis from your veterinarian that your pet has a life-shortening disease, you treat each meal like it could be its last. Your lab that was once eating dry kibble is now feasting like a king on warm filet mignon and your Persian is getting accustomed to its lemon-crusted salmon. While such a change isn't a bad idea in moderation or when a pet refuses to eat, it is important that owners be aware of the ramifications of over-feeding a cancer patient.

For example, "it is more difficult to appropriately dose chemotherapy when a patient is overweight," explains Dr. Jackie Wypij, a veterinary oncologist at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana. In addition, overweight veterinary patients (like overweight human patients) are at an increased risk of anesthetic complications. Since the treatment for some cancers is surgical removal of a mass, anesthesia is often necessary.

Although cachexia, the loss of weight despite adequate or over-nutrition, is often seen in humans with cancer, "it's rare in cats and dogs," explains Dr. Wypij. Less than 5 percent of oncology patients experience the phenomenon. That is, unless an animal has some type of disease impacting its gastro-intestinal track.

While overfeeding to the point of obesity can be detrimental, an "Atkins"-based diet in cancer patients may prove beneficial. Since cancer cells are fueled by simple sugars, a diet low in these and higher in protein and fat may help slow down the malignant cells. "Feline patients are usually already on a diet that is low in carbohydrates and high in protein," explains Dr. Wypij, "so I usually do not recommend much change for them." But she does mention that the addition of fatty acid supplements containing omega-3 fatty acids can help.

One nutritional additive that is frequently administered to chemotherapy patients is probiotics. Because the cocktail of drugs often alter the growth of the normal bacteria in the intestines, probiotics (or healthy bacterial microorganisms) are often helpful to maintain a healthy gastro-intestinal system.

As far as preventing cancer in your pet, there is no simple answer. But Dr. Wypij does have one general recommendation, "Maintain your pet's health like you would a person's--provide them with a balanced diet, plenty of exercise, try to keep them slim, and limit exposure to toxins such as second-hand smoke."

Although it is nearly impossible to prove that one specific factor will always cause cancer, the research is clear in one category: pets that are overweight are more likely to develop health problems than pets kept at a healthy weight.

Since Fido doesn't usually experience the unfortunate situation of putting on a pair of jeans, only to realize they button only on an inhale, if you want your pet to stay trim, it's up to you!

For more information on nutrition and cancer, contact your local veterinarian.