A Healing Diet for Dogs with Cancer

July 16, 2007

By Deb M. Eldredge, DVM

You never want to get the news that your dog has cancer. However, it’s good to know there are many effective treatments available to dogs now. One of the simplest and most affordable is a good diet. While the food you give your dog won’t necessarily cure cancer, it can make a significant difference in your dog’s ability to fight the disease.

If your dog is diagnosed with cancer, you should make it a priority to help him maintain as healthy a body as possible with a sound immune system. This may require some adjustments to his diet, because many cancers cause dogs to lose weight and muscle mass. This condition, called “cachexia,” can be caused directly by the cancer or it can be the side effect of some cancer treatments.

In a series of studies, Dr. Ogilvie, a leading cancer nutritionist, looked at the effect of different diets on dogs with cancers, specifically lymphomas. He discovered that dogs with cancer actually metabolize some nutrients differently than healthy dogs.

For starters, dogs with cancer use carbohydrates differently. In his study, Dr. Ogilvie found that the cancer grows rapidly with plenty of glucose available. Specifically, the cancer cells gain energy by using simple sugars, such as glucose, which is a breakdown product of carbohydrates. Therefore, you can help deprive the cancer cells of fuel for growth by decreasing the amount of carbohydrates in your dog’s diet.

In contrast to their use of carbs, cancer cells don’t utilize fat very well. The omega-3 fatty acids in particular are useful for cancer patients. These fatty acids decrease the development of carcinogen-related tumors and decrease the growth of solid tumors. They also help alleviate some side effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatments and provide healthy cells with energy. Flaxseed oil and cold-water fish oils such as salmon oils are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids that you can consider adding to your dog’s diet. Omega-6 fatty acids such as safflower oil are not recommended, with the exception of cases of an unusual skin growth called mycosis fungoides.

So a diet with low carbohydrates and a fair amount of omega-3 fatty acids can help your dog. But what about protein? Tumor cells will use protein for energy before fat; that’s why cancer patients lose muscle and body condition. The cancer cells fight with the normal cells for the amino acids they need. An ideal diet for a dog with cancer, then, contains a moderate amount of top-quality protein.

You may also want to supplement some amino acids, such as arginine, which is known for helping to maintain the immune system. A strong immune system can help your dog’s body fight cancer. Glutamine is another important amino acid that helps to preserve the gastrointestinal tract and may decrease any vomiting or diarrhea seen as a side effect of some chemotherapy regimens. Finally, glycine specifically protects the kidneys from the side effects of the chemotherapy drug called cisplatin. You can really boost your dog’s ability to fight the cancer by making sure he gets enough of these three important amino acids.

Other supplements that might be beneficial include vitamins A, C, and E and selenium. These vitamins and the mineral selenium are known for their antioxidant properties; they all fight the free radicals related to aging. Vitamin A can even be supplied in the form of cod liver oil that will also provide extra omega-3 fatty acids. Vitamin E and selenium act as antioxidants but need to be given in the proper balance. Vitamin C is not only an antioxidant but also an acidifier. Studies have shown that an alkaline body aids cancer growth, so it is conceivable, though not proven, that an acidic body may slow down cancer growth. While all of these supplements are helpful, too much of any one of them can be dangerous, so be sure to consult with your veterinarian about the proper dosage before you add them to your dog’s diet.

A few additional dietary additions that may be helpful include garlic, which is known for counteracting many carcinogens, and both black and green tea. It may be tricky to get your dog to enjoy an afternoon cup of tea with you, though! Herbs such as echinacea, bromelain and milk thistle may also be appropriate additives for specific cancers.

While we can’t say that diet changes will cure most cancers, some dietary adjustments may help give your dog a longer survival time with a better quality of life. And luckily, most foods, unlike many cancer treatments, have very few side effects.

Dr. Deb M. Eldredge graduated from Cornell University as the first recipient of the Gentle Doctor Award. She has been in private practice and is active in virtually all dog sports. She is also an award-winning writer — her book “Cancer and Your Pet” was a finalist in the Dog Writers of America (DWAA) contest, and “Head of the Class,” a training book written with her daughter, won the Best Training and Behavior Book Award from DWAA in 2006.