Pet Corner

When Your Pet has Cancer

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I’ll never forget John Wayne’s response as he walked away from the hospital where he’d just received treatment for cancer. He waved his arm, grinned broadly and proclaimed for the world to hear: “Well, I guess I’ve whupped the big C.” For many of us, cancer doesn’t present much occasion to celebrate. It can call up deep emotions, and the mere mention of cancer, whether it affects us, our loved ones or our pets, often can send people into a tailspin of fear and depression.

For centuries, doctors have tried to heal cancer with everything from arsenic and vinegar to bleeding and leeches to our present-day conventional methods of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Although there is still no cure, there are some reasons to be optimistic. As we learn more and more about the causes of cancer, our therapies continue to improve. Many of the more progressive cancer treatments incorporate methods and medicines from both conventional and alternative healing methods. Given their effectiveness and relative gentleness, herbal medicines can be used as an important adjunct to any cancer treatment protocol.

Common Cancers

Cancer can occur in any tissue or cell type. However, cutaneous (skin) tumors are the most frequently diagnosed in most domestic animals because they can be identified easily and the constant exposure of the skin to the external environment predisposes this organ to tumor transformation. Lymphoma (tumor of the lymph cells) is the most frequently diagnosed malignancy of cats; this disease is often the result of infection by the Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV). Malignant lymphoma is also the most common neoplasm of the dog’s blood cells, with a reported incidence of 24 in 100,000.

Cancer Cure Cautions

When dealing with a powerfully emotional issue such as cancer, it is important to understand that there are no panaceas. Nothing will cure every cancer every time, and in all likelihood, there never will be a “miracle cure” with this capability. So if someone offers you a guaranteed cure, be more than a little skeptical.

Also realize that medicine, like everything else, is used according to current fashion trends. There was a time when it was fashionable to treat almost everything with leeches or bloodletting, and in some cultures it is still a very fashionable health cure to take a daily drink of one’s own urine. Herbal medicines are not immune to fashion, and whenever I see a particular herb being touted heavily, I back off its use until it has had more time to prove itself.

Every medical procedure and every medical agent carries a risk. And, every patient is an individual who will respond to medical treatments in his or her own manner. If the remedy is generally effective, many (but not all) patients likely will be helped to some degree, a few will have adverse reactions, and a certain number of patients miraculously will experience a complete recovery. It is impossible to predetermine how a particular animal will respond to any medicine — especially when dealing with something as invasive and life-threatening as cancer — and it is difficult to determine what treatment(s) will be most effective for any one case.

Cancer Treatment Approach

My idea of a holistic/alternative approach to treating cancer would look something like this:

• Teamwork: Use the expertise of a variety of practitioners to help you develop an overall protocol of therapy. Examples include a veterinary oncologist, a holistic veterinarian (preferably a practitioner who has experience using acupuncture, homeopathy and herbal therapies for treating cancer in pets), someone well-versed in herbal and nutritional treatments, and perhaps a spiritual adviser.

• Explore all options: Listen to all the options for treatment as they are presented by the experts, and be certain to ask about potential adverse side effects and herb/drug/supplement interactions.

• Budget your costs: Get an estimate for the expected costs that will be incurred for each treatment. If a particular treatment cannot be done within your budget, discuss alternative treatments.

• Give it your best shot: Realize that you and your pet may not win, no matter what treatment you try. At the same time, always hope and pray for the best results possible.

Herbs to Consider

I think the best use of herbs is as an addition to other therapies, and my approach is to use them as follows:

• Enhance the organ(s) that are under stress from the cancer.
• Help the patient stay in balance.
• Help the body detoxify — from the metabolic byproducts of the tumor, and from the drugs being used for treatment.
• Use safe herbs that have a history of being effective against some cancers.

Depending on the location of the primary site(s) of the cancer, herbs can be selected to enhance the organ under duress. For example, if the cancer is located in the liver, liver-supportive herbs such as milk thistle (Silybum marianum), turmeric (Curcuma longa) and dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale) could be used. In addition, almost any of the culinary herbs could be added to the diet for their antioxidant activity. Examples include oregano (Origanum vulgare) and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis).

The best herb to help create an immune-system balance is echinacea (Echinacea spp.). In addition, especially for the aged and debilitated patient, you might want to add eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus).

To help the body detoxify, you’ll want to enhance your pet’s functions of the liver and kidney. The above mentioned herbs for the liver (milk thistle and turmeric) and for the kidney (dandelion root) also apply here.

Anticancer Herbs

Almost every herbal medicine known to mankind has, at one time or another, been used to “cure” cancers, but there are several herbs that keep appearing in various anticancer formulas over the past 2,000 years. While many of these have not been scientifically tested specifically for their cancer-treating activity, their historical application indicates that there must be some reason for the consistent and persistent interest in their use.

In the abbreviated list below, I mention some of the herbs involved in the historical use of herbs to treat cancer. Most of these herbs have ingredients that have shown promise in treating cancers and are generally recommended as safe when used as indicated. These herbs have other properties that make them a practical addition to any overall herbal anticancer prescription. Check with your holistic veterinarian for appropriate use for your individual pet, proper dosages and possible interference (or additive effect) with any other medicine(s) being used.

Red clover (Trifolium pratense) has a long history all over the world of use in treating cancer. It contains a phenomenal array of anticancer and cancer-preventive compounds, including genistein, which is now the subject of intense scientific work for its anticancer effects. Red clover is often combined with burdock root in herbal formulations.

Burdock root (Arctium lappa) is an herbal blood purifier and is used to treat complaints of the gastrointestinal tract and skin. Several studies have demonstrated anticancer activity of burdock in animal systems.

Blue violet (Viola spp.) is an interesting example of an herb that at one time was a very fashionable herbal medicine, used especially to treat cancers. This herb has gone out of fashion, though, and I had to search for a reference from Dr. James A. Duke’s The Green Pharmacy. Duke says the flowers contain high levels of rutin, a substance that helps maintain and strengthen the integrity of capillary walls. Rutin is also a natural bioflavonoid (along with others, such as quercetin and hesperidin), and the flavonoids are known to have antioxidant activity, one of the biological activities that may help prevent cancers.

Echinacea is an herb known primarily for its ability to enhance the immune system, making it ideal for treating inflammatory diseases. Echinacea has been shown to have anticancer activity, but it is unclear whether this a direct effect against the cancer, or is due to echinacea’s ability to enhance the immune system. In any event, it is a good herb to add to any anticancer formulation.

Oregon grape root (Mahonia aquifolium) has been used to treat stomach, liver and gallbladder conditions. Oregon grape root is high in berberine, which has anti-tumor properties and tends to block oxygen uptake particularly to cancer cells.


Randy Kidd holds doctorates in veterinary medicine and veterinary and clinical pathology. After practicing traditional veterinary medicine for 10 years, he opened Honoring the Animals, a holistic practice in Kansas City, Missouri. Visit our website, www.herbsforhealth.com, to order Dr. Kidd’s pet-care books.

Information provided in “Pet Corner” is not intended to replace the advice of a qualified veterinarian.