I have 2 Bernese Mountain Dogs. I was devastated when one of our dogs, Rin (pictured getting a chemo treatment), was diagnosed with cancer (lymphoma). A cancer diagnosis is devastating. Various thoughts flood our mind when we hear these words. My thoughts were flooded with why, how, what can be done, I don’t want him to die…I cried often. I opted for chemotherapy. Rin was only 4 and I felt he had a lot more life in him. I was right. I was told with chemo there was a 2 year life expectancy. Today Rin is going on 3 years cancer free.
In my work with human patients there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason why we get cancer. Some patients are young, some old, some have lived healthy lives and some should have paid more attention to their health and diet. There is a genetic component to cancer that we can’t do anything about to reduce the risk.
Besides the treatments offered by the veterinarian, there may be a nutritional aspect which can enhance your dog’s quality of life and possibly survival time. The recommendations below are generalizations. Further nutrition consultation should be sought for your dog’s individualized needs.
Most nutritional advice is based on human studies which may or may not be applicable for your dog. Human nutrition has been highly researched considering the variability of our diet. It has been shown that certain dietary regimens may decrease cancer risk in humans. Unlike humans, beloved dogs are fed a more balanced diet. Human studies also show a correlation with obesity and some cancers. There is a lack of clinical data to show the same correlation in dogs. From my functional nutrition training, it is estimated that 95% of human cancers can be prevented with nutrition.
The focus of dietary treatment should be on providing food that is highly digestible and provides sufficient calories, especially with weight loss (anorexia or cachexia). Without adequate calorie intake the body breaks down skeletal muscle (cachexia) to meet the body’s metabolic needs. Choosing diets high in fat and protein and low in carbohydrate may be helpful. As a guideline: 35% protein and ≥25% fat (on a dry matter basis).
Many premium dry and canned products or specialty foods for active or stressed dogs fit these guidelines. There are also some specialty foods for dogs living with cancer. They generally have higher quality and quantity of protein and fat compared to maintenance diets. Be aware that canned food is about 70-75% water (as fed). With water removed the percentage of nutrients will be lower, e.g. ≥12% protein and ≥10% fat. Adequate vitamins and minerals are present in most dog foods so there is no need to provide more.
Despite our best efforts, weight loss may still occur even when we provide adequate calories. With anorexia and cachexia palatability is very important. Some dogs find moist food more palatable. These soft foods are also easier to swallow and ideal if swallowing is an issue.
Up to 2% of dietary protein can be provided as arginine (an amino acid which are building blocks of protein). Arginine may slow tumor progression. Be careful as more is not better. Other protein/amino acids have not been significantly studied in dogs, unlike human studies, so the addition of other amino acids is not recommended.
Omega 3 fatty acid is an anti-inflammatory fat and can increase survival times and reduce cancer growth. The balance of omega-3 fatty acid to omega-6 fatty acid is very important. Premium foods are supplemented with omega 3 fatty acids to achieve a balance of omega 3 to omega 6. This balance is imperative to proper functioning and adding more omega 6 fatty acids is not recommended.
During treatment (chemo or radiation) the use of antioxidants may be contraindicated and a survival advantage to the cancer cell. Fish oil (source of omega 3 fatty acid) and arginine are unlikely to be detrimental. Fish oil may result in better radiation recovery and less inflammation to surrounding tissue and promote cell death of cancer cells.
Fibre is beneficial for the health of the digestive tract and possibly prevention of colon cancer. During cancer treatments it may be beneficial if GI symptoms are severe. However, fibre does increase fullness so if your dog has trouble eating enough calories a lower fibre diet may be more beneficial.
Be cautious of using diets found on the internet designed for canine cancer patients. They are more often grossly imbalanced in vitamins and minerals. For example, raw meat diets are usually nutritionally unbalance and reduced nutrient balance can increase the incidence of cancer. Focus on providing complete and balanced meals to ensure the supply of vitamins and minerals for your dog.