May is Pet Cancer Awareness Month: Cancer has a taste for the exotic

May is Pet Cancer Awareness Month: Cancer has a taste for the exotic

Betty White talks about Pet Cancer Awareness month and how you can give back! For each bag of Blue Buffalo dog or cat food purchased in May Blue Buffalo will donate one dollar to the Morris Animal Foundation. You can also donate in PETCO stores or online.

It is unclear why Pet Cancer Awareness chooses May to hold Pet Cancer Awareness Month when the American Veterinary Medical Association lists National Pet Cancer Awareness Month as November. However, whether Pet Cancer Awareness wants their message to reach further than the national scale or whether they just wanted a day on their own, ONE of the months to raise awareness of cancer in pets is just around the corner and it may affect your exotic pet someday.

May is Pet Cancer Awareness Month: Cancer has a taste for the exotic
Paranoid Parrot

Cancer has a taste for the Exotic

It is well known that pets are at risk for cancer. According to recent stats from VPI Pet Insurance (one of the few insurance providers with plans that cover exotics), dogs are:

Twice as likely to develop leukemia than humans.

4 times more likely to suffer from breast cancer.

8 times more likely to develop bone cancer.

35 times more at risk for developing skin cancer.

But it is not just dogs and cats. Many exotic pets are particularly prone to cancer.

Ferrets that "die of old age" mostly die of Insulinoma

Ferrets are prone to many cancers, the most common is Lymphosarcoma. Second most common is Insulinoma. One of the symptoms of Insulinoma is a ferret that stares out at nothing for periods of time. Most ferrets that “die of old age” actually die of cancer.

There is some research that suggests getting your ferret fixed but NOT de-scented may lessen your ferrets health risks. That is not an option if you buy a Marshall Farms baby from most of Utah's pet stores. Petco, Living Safari (Murray), and Critters (Taylorsville), only carry Marshalls), as they do both before sending their babies to the shop.) Another way to prevent cancer (at least Insulinoma) is to avoid ever feeding your ferret sugary treats and to keep them physically active. As ferrets are obligate carnivores, their treats should primarily (if not solely!) be limited to meat anyway. In addition, Melatonin implants look very promising!

Inbred guinea pigs more at risk

According to PetMD:

Lymphosarcoma, a malignant tumor of the lymphatic tissues, is the most common tumor in guinea pigs. It causes what is referred to as Cavian leukemia. Signs may include a scruffy hair coat and occasionally masses in the chest area and/or an enlarged liver or spleen.

Most types of cancer are not common in guinea pigs until they are 4 or 5 years old (the average lifespan of a guinea pig is 4-8 years old.) After that age, between one-sixth and one-third of guinea pigs are known to develop a tumor.

Buying from a reputable breeder who keeps pedigrees rather than from a random breeder on Craigslist or a pet store lessens your risk because guinea pigs that are inbred are more prone to tumor and cancer development.

Corn is not your Sugar Glider's friend

Sugar gliders are not as prone to cancer as some other small pets, however it is not unknown. In the summer of 2011, Heber, my own male sugar glider, was taken by a fast growing tumor.

"I was taking vet tech classes at Broadview University, and the semester was coming to a close. Then, on June 21st, with only minutes before my final, Heber was out on a perch, looking... off. It was during the day. I offered him a treat, he didn't take it. I immediately grabbed him off the perch to check him over. There was diarrhea on the perch. I pinched his skin and it tented: Dehydration. I tried to make him drink from his bottle, he wouldn't. He started sliding down the bars of his cage, too weak to climb. I held him and gave him Pedialyte from my glider 1st aid kit drip by drip in a syringe. He was doing a little, but not much, better. I had to go to the test, but I felt sick about it. I made my mom promise she would make him drink every few minutes and after I got out I wanted to take him to the emergency vet if he wasn't looking much better."

"I took my test, doing horrible, by the way, thinking about Heber the whole time. My brother texted me saying they had decided to take him in before I got home because they said they could give him subcutaneous fluids. I said, yes, thank you. I felt a little, but not much, better. As soon as I was done I told my professor I was sorry, but I had to go, and raced out of the room. It was probably an hour since I had left Heber. My sister and mom picked me up and just walking to the car I knew. They had been crying. I started to cry. They said Heber had died just a little after being seen by the vet. He discovered a tumor on his stomach, a large one. After getting him back, I felt it, it was like a marble. He said that it was that tumor that killed him. He said I did the right thing with the fluids, but that he was just sicker than that. It had grown fast... he'd had a wellness check with our exotic vet just a month before."

One way to reduce your male sugar glider's chances of getting cancer is to get him fixed by a qualified exotic veterinarian. Neutering reduces the risk of testicular cancer (since the testicles are removed). In Heber's case, this did not help him, even though he was neutered because the tumor was on his stomach wall. However, there are many benefits to neutering your glider. Spaying, the fixing of female animals, is not a surgery done on sugar gliders. In case of medical emergency, hysterectomy or ovariohysterectomy can be preformed, but it is invasive and risky.

The biggest cancer risk to sugar gliders is related to aflatoxins, mostly carried by crickets. Aflatoxins are toxic metabolites produced by certain fungi that grows on feed such as corn, peanuts, and cottonseed. Aflatoxins are also carcinogenic (cancer causing). Because of the high phosphorous levels in corn, it should be avoided in your sugar gliders' diet anyway. Peanuts, too, should be very rare because of the high fat content. However, your insect-loving suggie can contract aflatoxicosis by eating crickets who have been fed contaminated corn, and this is the most common way of contracting the illness. It should be noted, that affected corn can kill, not just sugar gliders, but many other exotic pets as well. It is wise to avoid corn in as many of your pet's foods (and their feeder animals' feeds) as possible, from hamsters to hedgehogs to tortoises to terriers!

To avoid feeding your sugar glider dangerous aflatoxins, some sites like (a cover/puppet site for the unscrupulous glider mill, Perfect Pocket Pets) recommend not feeding your glider insects at all! As gliders diets in the wild are made primarily of insects and other small animals, that advice flies in the face of science. (Interestingly, they also recommend feeding their "Glide-R-Chow" as their staple diet... of which corn is the second ingredient!). However, when feeding insects or any animal product, use caution. Some good suggestions:

  • Choose insects other than crickets that are less commonly fed corn-based feed or kept on corncob bedding.
  • If you can, raise your own feeders so you can be sure that other bedding and feed sources are used that are less likely to grow Aspergillus. Also, you can monitor to be sure that bedding and food never get moldy. Mealworms are very easy to raise, as are many species of roaches such as Dubia roaches and Madagascar hissing cockroaches.
  • If you can not raise your own feeders, don't be afraid to ask your supplier how their feeders are kept and fed. You may have to do some digging. Your pet store can tell you how they keep their feeders, but may not be able to tell you what they were fed before shipped there.

Hedgehogs: Cancer can be a prickly business!

Dr. Mark Burgess spoke for Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, Utah and advised the following:

Older hedgehogs are highly prone to many types of cancer. Common types include oral tumors, and mammary tumors (breast cancer) in females. Any visible lump should be checked immediately by a veterinarian. Oral odor, drooling, or difficulty eating are also cause for concern. Many tumors are curable if caught early and removed. Weight control may reduce the risk of some tumors. Spaying female hedgehogs most likely reduces the risk of mammary tumors, and eliminates the risk of uterine cancer.

As always, please only have a hedgehog spayed or neutered by a qualified exotics specialist. A breeder, broker, or other animal care specialist is not only unqualified, but breaking the law if they fix (or claim to fix) pets themselves, Even a traditional vet usually should not/will not preform the operation. They have anatomy that is very different than dogs and cats.

As with sugar gliders, care must be taken with their diet to eliminate corn in their staple and select safe feeder bugs as hedgehogs are mostly insectivores. Hedgehogs are at an equal risk through exposure to aflatoxins. Please follow the same suggestions in their diet. Also, never use corncob bedding for cage litter, choosing instead options like CareFresh or fleece. For experiences of hedgies with cancer, check out the Hedgehog Welfare Society. especially their newsletter or their Yahoo mailing list. Because many in the group take care of rescued or special needs hedgehogs, they are a wealth of information on any hedgehog ailment.

Cancer is for the birds ( recommended)

Birds, too, can get cancer. According to The most common malignancy diagnosed in birds is an internal tumor of either the kidney or gonad (ovary or testicle). As the tumor grows, often the first sign of trouble is lameness of one leg. Budgies, also known as parakeets, are very prone to this and other cancers. Dr. Margaret A. Wissman, D.V.M reports:

Fibrosarcomas (tumors arising from connective tissue) are one of the more common types of cancer found in birds, and these are often seen on the wing or leg. They are most often diagnosed in budgerigars, cockatiels, macaws and other species of parrot... If discovered early on, surgical removal, often involving amputation of the limb, can be curative, however, these are likely to metastasize to lung, liver, bone or elsewhere with time. I have removed many a fibrosarcoma, most often from the wings of cockatiels, and most have gone on to live long, happy lives, albeit, with only one wing remaining!

Jeffrey Jenkins, DVM, of the Avian and Exotic Animal Hospital told that both physical and emotional issues play a part in cancer prevention.

"Cancer likes change," Jenkins said. "We see it. Cockatiels who freak out and beat their wings against their cages oftentimes are the ones who turn up with xanthomas on their wingtips as older birds."

However, physical health of your feathered friend is the biggest factor. "...Obese parrots are more susceptible to cancer, and those birds who eat nothing but seed mix and who receive little exercise are more prone to tumors. Skin cancers are also more likely with these overfed, under-exercised birds: Unhealthy skin with a layer of fat underneath is a recipe for trouble," he explained.

For rats, a benign tumor may be just as bad as a malignant one

Rats are extremely prone to tumors, and because of how large they can grow, even benign tumors can cause big trouble. However, benign tumors can be removed pretty simply, unlike malignant ones that are often inoperable. That's because they grow, but not metastasize (spread) and are almost always encapsulated in a membrane and separate from nearby tissues. Debbie Ducummon, a well-known author on rat care and a technical consultant on the Pixar movie Ratatouille (you can see her name at the end of the credits under Special Thanks, center column, third name down.) explained in the Rat & Mouse Gazette:

"The smaller the tumor, the more easily (and cheaply) it can be removed. It's never too late to have a tumor removed as long as your rat is otherwise in good health. I've successfully removed mammary tumors the size of a small apple! I've also removed tumors from rats well over two years old, so age should not be the only factor when considering surgery. Because mammary tumors are just under the skin the surgery to remove them is minor, as opposed to major surgery which enters a body cavity, and rats usually recover quite quickly. As long as a rat is otherwise in good health, this minor surgery can be performed on a rat of any age. While there is a chance that any rat could develop another tumor later, the surgery will probably save her life and definitely improve the quality of her life for months to come."

However, benign tumors are far from harmless. Although they won't usually cause death directly like a malignant one, any tumor can grow so large that the rat has can't even walk and can't eat enough to support both the tumor and normal body functions. If the tumor is not removed, rats at this stage may need to be euthanized before reaching this stage.

On the other hand, Ducummon explains further, with malignant tumors (cancer) death, will be caused by the failure of damaged organs.

Because cancerous tumors intertwine with normal tissues, surgery is usually impossible in rats. In most cases, cancer involves the internal organs, so symptoms often aren't seen until the disease is well advanced and euthanasia is the only alternative. The symptoms of cancer may include a skin ulcer, ulcerated tumor, or bleeding from a lump, a distended abdomen, weight loss, and lethargy.

So, how can you prevent cancer in rats? Here are some tips:

  1. Feed your rat a low fat, low calorie diet which is also low in amines and nitrates (when these natural components of some plants combine in the stomach they are carcinogenic). Many studies link obesity and a high fat diet with tumors.
  2. Purchase your rat from a reputable breeder who keeps good records/pedigrees, rather than a pet store. Ducummon says, "Try to find a breeder who has been selectively eliminating the tendency for tumors from their stock. This type of breeding can be difficult, because tumors usually occur in rats over a year old, after they can already have great-great grandchildren."
  3. This is more of avoiding dealing with cancer in your own pet experience than actually preventing it, but choose male rats over female rats. While males can also get tumors, the benign mammary tumors that are so common in females are relatively rare (though still possible) in males.
  4. Scientists have shown that a substance found in crucifers (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and other crunchy vegetables) actively blocks formation of cancerous tumors in rats. Add crunchy vegetables into your own rats diet and benefit from the necessary evil of animal testing. According to the research of Paul Talalay, M.D., J.J. Abel, Distinguished Service Professor of Pharmacology at John Hopkins, "One group [of rats] received broccoli sprouts while the control group received nothing. Both groups were exposed to a carcinogen, dimethylbenzanthracene. The broccoli sprouts group not only developed far fewer tumors, but the tumors that did develop were smaller and grew much more slowly."
  5. Spaying female rats can greatly reduce the risk of mammary cancer.

A cancer-proof pet? It might not be "KimPossible!"

Rufus, the naked mole rat on the Disney series Kim Possible is cute, quick thinking, knows martial arts, and generally is an amazing guy. Real naked mole rats are blind, not so cute, and rely on their colony underground to survive. But they do have some pretty amazing powers. They feel no pain on their skin and,while regular domestic rats are very susceptible to cancer, their cousinis immune and scientists are beginning to understand why. According to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists traced the naked mole rats' ability to stay tumorless to the operation of a single gene.

Dubbed 'p16', the gene works by making cells "claustrophobic", essentially keeping them from replicating when too many crowd together. Since cancer is caused by runaway cell growth, the gene acts as a fail-safe mechanism, preventing cell proliferation from cascading out of control.

"It's very early to speculate about the implications, but if the effect of p16 can be simulated in humans, we might have a way to halt cancer before it starts," said University of Rochester researchers Vera Gorbunova and Andrei Seluanov.

Now, in reality, unless you really are Kim Possible, your chances are slim that you will ever get to own a NMR of your own (and probably wouldn't want to!). They need colonies (that act similar to a beehive with a queen, a few drones, and the rest being no breeding workers) of 20 - 300 animals, they don't regulate their own temperature internally, and just basically do not act like Rufus. Also, here in Utah they are not likely legal, though they are not actually listed specifically on the Zoological Animals Code.

Occasionally "naked mole rats" are advertised on for sale as pets on KSL, but inevitably, these animals end up being regular domestic rats, but of the hairless variety. On the bright side, these hairless rats make much more friendly pets, are less expensive, require no permits, are lower maintenance, and are considerably cuter. Negatives include a lower immune system their either their own furred variety or NMR, much shorter lifespans (domestic rats live up to 3 years. Naked mole rats can make it up to 30!), and, of course, prone to cancer where naked mole rats possess the immunity.

What to watch for

If cancer is detected early it can often be treated much more effectively. As such, here are some tips to watch for in most species from the Veterinary Cancer Society:

10 Early Warning Signs.

  • Abnormal, persistent swelling
  • Sores that do not heal
  • Loss of weight
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unexplained bleeding or discharge from any body opening
  • Offensive odor (including worse breath than usual)
  • Difficulty eating or swallowing
  • Hesitation to exercise or loss of stamina
  • Persistent lameness or stiffness
  • Difficulty breathing, urinating or defecating

How will you observe Pet Cancer Awareness Month?

Pet Cancer Awareness Month isn't exactly a festive, fun holiday, but that doesn't mean it doesn't deserve a place on your calendar! Wondering how you can celebrate? Here are some ideas:

  1. If your pet has any suspicious bumps or lumps get them checked out by your vet! Stop putting it off. It may be the difference between life and death.
  2. Make a donation to help cancer research for pets. Even a little bit helps!
  3. For a change of pace, read a story about a human who has cancer and his exotic pet who does not! There's a Flying Squirrel in My Coffee: Overcoming Cancer with the Help of My Pet by Bill Goss is inspiring and animal lovers love it.
  4. If you have a pet battling cancer, you are not alone! Learn everything you can!
  5. Colorado isn't too far from Utah. Register for The Denver VPI K9K Pet Cancer Awareness Walk to be held June 10, 2012! "Veterinary Pet Insurance is leading the charge in raising pet cancer awareness with a fun-filled 3K (1.8 miles) walk for both people and their pets. The Denver K9K Pet Cancer Awareness Walk carries participants around Washington Park." Dogs are invited! For exotic pet owners (and cat owners), whose pets are not invited to walk, they are selling Animal Cancer Foundation Bracelets as a way to contribute to the charity. Pick one up!