09/28/2012 02:06 pm ET Updated Nov 28, 2012

Pretty in Pink: How Pets Are Helping the Fight Against Breast Cancer

As the leaves outside turn orange and gold over the next couple of weeks, we will see everything from skyscrapers to sneakers turn pink to promote breast cancer awareness in October. For nearly three decades, we've marked National Breast Cancer Awareness Month with fundraising and awareness efforts, all aimed at encouraging early detection and finding a cure. The global success of the campaign has hugely increased our understanding of the disease, but there still remains a side to the story that goes largely untold; breast cancer also affects our pets. Many are surprised to learn that mammary tumors can make our pets sick, and that the research and development of treatments for our pets can unlock clues about helping people beat breast cancer.

Here in Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine runs a Shelter Canine Mammary Tumor Program with the dual mission of providing care to homeless dogs afflicted with the disease and advancing our knowledge of breast cancer biology. It turns out that mammary tumors in dogs and breast cancer in women have many similarities, and the program collects data that could lead to more progressive treatment of both canine and human breast cancers. Because dogs have 8-10 mammary glands capable of producing tumors simultaneously, doctors are able to observe the entire spectrum of cancer development and search for patterns that could provide valuable insight into its progression. Since similar disease processes take place more quickly due to dogs' shorter lifespans, canine breast cancer research produces faster results, which could have promising implications for human cancer research.

When it comes to breast cancer, dogs are slightly better off than their feline friends; 50 percent of canine mammary tumors are malignant, while 90 percent are typically malignant in cats. Like cancer in humans, breast cancer that affects our pets can metastasize to other areas of the body in both species, often spreading rapidly to the lymph nodes and lungs.

Despite ever-improving methods of diagnosis and treatment, cancer still represents one of the most frequent causes of death in both humans and dogs. But a breast cancer diagnosis doesn't have to mean the end for your pet. In fact, you can take steps both to help prevent the disease and to give your pet the very best medical care should she ever need treatment. Follow this simple advice to stay a step ahead of cancer:

Risky Business
Hereditary, hormonal and environmental factors can put some pets at higher risk for developing mammary tumors. Other risk factors include age and diet, so monitoring is mandatory. Take your pet to the vet regularly for a checkup -- at least once per year -- and talk to your vet about your pet's breed and possible risk factors, as well as their diet and exercise habits. Geriatric pets should have semi-annual veterinary visits so signs of illness or other problems can be detected and treated early.

An Ounce of Prevention
The best thing you can do to prevent breast cancer from developing in your pet is to have her spayed at a young age, ideally before her first heat cycle. Female dogs who are not spayed are much more likely to have mammary tumors -- as many as one in four unspayed female dogs will develop breast cancer in her life. For cats, the incidence of mammary tumors is reduced by 91 percent when spayed prior to six months of age, and by 86 percent in cats spayed before their first birthdays.

Playing Detective
Like human breast cancer, successful diagnosis and treatment depends largely on early detection, and at-home exams are an essential part of ensuring breast health. Checking your dog or cat for signs of abnormal growths around the mammary glands is as easy as giving her a belly rub. When your pet is lying on her side, gently massage each teat and the surrounding tissue. Abnormalities can range from smooth pea-sized growths to lumpy larger masses. If you think you've detected a lump, it's time to visit the vet.

Forward Thinking
Though no one wants to imagine getting a cancer diagnosis for their pet, it pays to think ahead and consider options for treatment, pain management and even end-of-life care. Protect your pet with pet insurance at the time of adoption or purchase (don't wait until the pet gets sick -- no pet insurance provider can cover pre-existing conditions) and make sure the policy covers comprehensive cancer treatment. Pet insurance can ensure peace of mind that you won't be faced with choosing between your pet and your pocketbook down the road, and you'll be able to approve the treatments your veterinarian recommends to save your pet's life without worrying about cost.

We share everything with our pets: love, friendship, joy, comfort. Unfortunately, we also share the same genetic basis for certain types of cancer, including breast cancer. This October, as you're tying on that pink scarf or walking in support of the millions of women touched by breast cancer, take a moment to consider the impact a cancer diagnosis may have on your pet, and take action to give her the best fighting chance of overcoming the disease. Together we can race, donate, shop, hope, pray, bark and meow for the cure.