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Lung Cancer in Pets

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Cancers that originate in the lung, known as primary lung cancers, are rare in dogs and cats because pets don't smoke and because their nasal passages filter out many air pollutants before they reach the lungs.  However, lung cancers often occur secondary to other cancers through metastasis, the process by which cancer cells from the primary tumor site move to  other parts of the body -- such as the lungs --  via the blood or lymph fluid.

Primary or metastatic cancers of the lung are most common in older pets.  Signs of illness include persistent coughing, difficulty breathing, loss of appetite, weight loss, and fever.  Cancers in the chest can also have an effect on bone metabolism, so that affected pets can develop limping or swelling in the legs. 

Lung tumors are usually diagnosed via chest x-rays, in which they appear as one or more whitish masses.  However, your veterinarian may also want to perform other tests (such as blood tests or a needle aspirate) to differentiate lung cancer from fungal infection, or to localize cancer in other parts of the body. 

Surgical removal is the treatment of choice for solitary or isolated lung tumors.  Metastatic lung cancer usually carries a poor prognosis, but some pets respond well to chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy.  All of these treatments are specialized procedures that usually require referral to a vet specialist or veterinary teaching hospital.  Your vet may also prescribe palliative therapy, such as cough suppressants or corticosteroids, to help your pet feel better.  Affected pets can live as long as two years with proper treatment, but most live for only months after diagnosis.

Q&A

Can pets get lung cancer, even though they don't smoke?

Cancers originating in the lung are rare in dogs and cats, just as they are in nonsmokers.  However, cancers from other sites in the body commonly travel to the lung, where they become lodged and grow into metastatic lung tumors. 

What are the signs of lung cancer?

Like most cancers, lung tumors tend to occur in older dogs and cats.  Affected pets often cough or have difficulty breathing.  Other signs can include loss of appetite, weight loss, fever, and even limping.

How is lung cancer treated in dogs and cats?

Surgical removal is the treatment of choice for solitary or localized lung tumors.  Metastatic lung tumors carry a poor prognosis, but some respond well to radiation or chemotherapy.

Credit: Written and reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhDand Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS 
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