Don’t Despair; Just Care

Holistic care and home support are effective for treating canine cancer.


Cancer always sounds like a death sentence, no matter how the diagnosis is delivered. When patients are cured, they’re the exception rather than the rule – especially when they are very young or very old or when their cancers are well established.

“It’s true that some cancers have a high survival rate,” says Carol Falck, VMD, a holistic veterinarian in Pompano Beach, Florida, “but cancer is never good news, even if it’s easy to treat or detected early. Cancer is a chronic disease, an aberration of the immune system. Whenever and however it appears, it indicates that the body has been out of balance for a long time.”

Unlike conventional veterinary medicine (see “Conventional Cancer Care,” December 2005), which identifies dozens of specific cancers and treats each as a unique illness, holistic medicine takes a “whole body” approach.

“Holistic medicine does not specifically treat cancer,” says Dr. Falck. “Instead, it helps patients eliminate factors that allowed their cancers to develop in the first place. In holistic medicine, there are no specific protocols for different cancer diagnoses the way there are in conventional medicine. Rather, cancer is considered an imbalance that should be corrected so that the body can repair itself.”

Because cancer is such a frightening disease, it’s easy to panic and feel overwhelmed as you try to make sense of diagnoses and treatment options. “But you don’t have to decide everything that same day,” says Dr. Falck. “You have time to consult a holistic veterinarian or get a second opinion. And you don’t have to decide on a 100 percent conventional protocol or a 100 percent natural protocol. Integrative or complementary medicine combines the best of both worlds. In addition, there’s a lot you can do at home with holistic therapies to help your dog heal.”

Complementary medicine
Although the terms alternative, natural, complementary, integrative, and holistic are often used interchangeably, they have slightly different meanings.

“Alternative” is a catch-all phrase that describes any treatment that has not been endorsed by conventional medicine. “Natural” therapies are based on centuries-old botanical, nutritional, and physical treatments, most of which are gentle as well as effective, though they work more slowly than conventional treatments. “Complementary” and “integrative” describe the combination of natural and conventional therapies. “Holistic” applies to any treatment plan that considers all of the factors in a patient’s life, not just his lab test results.

In contrast, conventional or orthodox medicine trains its practitioners to identify specific diseases and treat them by attacking their symptoms. This approach is also called “allopathic,” which literally means “symptom-suppressing.” The downside of conventional medicine is that it seldom addresses an illness’s underlying causes, so it does not correct or eliminate the illness at its source. Treated illnesses often continue to progress, even while their symptoms subside temporarily. This is why recurring cancers are so common and so serious. Another problem with conventional medicine is that its treatments can cause side effects more painful and incapacitating than the illness itself.

“In addition,” says Dr. Falck, “conventional medicine usually ignores the emotional aspects of disease. I think holistic medicine does an excellent job of incorporating physical and emotional aspects into a treatment plan.”

Specific treatments that fall under the holistic/alternative umbrella include diet, nutritional supplements, homeopathy, herbal medicine, aromatherapy, flower essences, chiropractic, acupuncture, acupressure, massage, and several others. In complementary or integrative cancer care, these treatments are used to improve the results of conventional therapy and counteract its adverse side effects.

For example, acupuncture and medicinal herbs help alleviate the nausea caused by chemotherapy, while nutritional supplements help restore lost hair. Aromatherapy and herbs speed the healing of surgical wounds and help prevent skin damage caused by radiation treatments. Herbs, aromatherapy, and flower remedies alleviate stress and help bring emotions into balance. And an improved diet supports all cancer therapies.

The cornerstone of every holistic cancer therapy is diet – but which diet remains a subject of controversy.

Most conventional veterinarians prescribe commercial pet foods for dogs with cancer, or they encourage owners to feed the patient whatever he or she will eat. In contrast, holistic veterinarians often recommend a home-prepared or raw diet that does not include grains. Cancer cells metabolize carbohydrates quickly, so grains and other carbohydrates are problem ingredients. However, cancer cells do not metabolize fats, so fats are “safe” ingredients, although hydrogenated, partially hydrogenated, highly refined, and rancid fats should be avoided.

The list of recommended fats includes all animal fats, including fish oil, as well as coconut oil, which has its own cancer-fighting ingredients (see “Crazy about Coconut Oil,” October 2005).

As described in “Feed the Dog, Starve the Cancer” (November 2003), cancer researcher Greg Ogilvie, DVM, Dip. ACVIM, and colleagues at Colorado State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences recommend a diet of less than 25 percent carbohydrates, 35 to 48 percent protein, and 27 to 35 percent fat, with more than 5 percent of the total food comprised of omega-3 fatty acids and more than 2 percent arginine (dry weight measurements).

Protein is a crucial ingredient in any canine diet, for dogs, like their wolf ancestors, are best adapted to protein foods. Meat, eggs, poultry, and fish that are organically raised, pasture-fed, or caught in the wild are best for cancer patients. Meat and eggs from factory farms and fish from fish farms are far more likely to contain harmful bacteria, prescription drug residues, or contaminants that interfere with immune function. (See “Upgrading to Pasture-Fed,” July 2003.)

Supplements that improve the assimilation of food, such as digestive enzymes, can be an important addition to any dog’s diet. Powders such as Prozyme can be sprinkled on food before serving, or digestive enzyme capsules or tablets can be given with meals.

Patients undergoing chemotherapy may lose their appetite, making any nutrition challenging. Freezing the dog’s food can reduce its odor, which seems to improve some dogs’ appetites. Toward the end of Bullet’s two-week fast (see sidebar, above), Kaplan bought a package of frozen smelt, and after she coaxed one of the fish into Bullet’s mouth, he began to chew. She later discovered that massaging inside his ears after placing his food bowl within reach triggered a reflexive eating response.

Seacure, the fermented deep sea whitefish powder described in “Securing Seacure” (April 2003), is an excellent supplement for cancer patients because it speeds tissue repair, helps alleviate the side effects of conventional treatment, and is immediately assimilated. Seacure powder can be added to food or simply mixed with water, and Seacure wafers can be fed at any time. Store this extremely fishy product in the freezer to reduce its odor.

Getting cancer patients to drink sufficient water can be as difficult as persuading them to eat. Filtered water added to food or squirted into the dog’s mouth, meat-flavored broth frozen in ice cube trays for easy dispensing, or meat-flavored gelatin can all increase a dog’s hydration.

Whether vegetables belong in a dog’s diet is another hotly debated topic, but when it comes to treating cancer, certain vegetables have been shown to fight the disease. In Germany, lactic acid fermented vegetables like sauerkraut are an integral part of some cancer therapies because these foods are “hostile” to cancer cells.

It’s easy to puree carrots with fresh ginger and other vegetables, add some powdered acidophilus and a sprinkling of unrefined sea salt, and press everything under a weight overnight or until the vegetables’ juices separate and they develop a piquant flavor. (See “It’s All in How You Make It,” March 2001, for directions.)

In addition to increasing their vitamin content and assimilation, lacto-fermented vegetables support beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract. Replacing the vegetables in any canine recipe with pureed lacto-fermented vegetables is easy and sensible.

In The Healthy Pet Manual: A Guide to the Prevention and Treatment of Cancer (another recommended resource), Deborah Straw describes several supplements that are appropriate for canine cancer patients.

First on the list is vitamin C, which may be the most-researched cancer supplement. As Straw explains, “Vitamin C may protect against cancer because it acts as a cellular antioxidant. It enhances the immune system by detoxifying certain carcinogens and by blocking the formation of various carcinogenic compounds created when certain foods are digested.”

The suggested dose varies by expert, with many recommending dosing to “bowel tolerance,” as loose stools result when the body has ingested more vitamin C than it can utilize. However, proponents of whole-food supplements argue that megadoses aren’t needed if the vitamin comes directly from food, as does the vitamin C in Cataplex C from Standard Process and Food C from Wysong. Or you can simply provide foods that are rich in vitamin C, such as small amounts of lacto-fermented vegetables.

Other key vitamins are B-complex, E, A, D, and K, all of which are important for overall health. Vitamins from whole-food sources are well tolerated, easily assimilated, and provide an entire complex of nutrients.

Bones provide minerals such as calcium and magnesium. For those who don’t feel comfortable feeding raw bones, look for supplements from companies, such as Standard Process, that make supplements from pasture-fed organic bones. Or, ask a local butcher who carries organic meats to grind fresh bones after he removes the meat for your dog’s meals.

Selenium, another important mineral, has been shown in human population studies to significantly protect against cancer.

Discuss appropriate dosages of these and other mineral or vitamin supplements with your holistic veterinarian.

Don’t neglect your dog’s beneficial bacteria. Probiotic supplements such as acidophilus, freshly prepared yogurt, and other beneficial bacteria improve digestion and bolster the gastrointestinal tract.

L-glutamine is also a very important supplement for dogs in chemotherapy. It helps the intestines and minimizes treatment side effects.

Herbal support
One of the most famous herbal remedies associated with cancer is Essiac, a tea developed by Renee Caisse, a Canadian nurse. A blend of burdock root, sheep sorrel, slippery elm bark, and turkey rhubarb root, Essiac tea can be added to food or drinking water or squirted directly into the mouth.

Essiac is said to be most effective if given on an empty stomach. The recommended dose is about 1 teaspoon per 10 pounds of body weight or 1 tablespoon per 30 pounds.

Beverly Cappel, DVM, recommends Essiac tea as a support therapy for cancer. “I give it to every animal I treat because it’s not going to hurt and it flushes them out,” she says. “Some reports say that it kills cancer. It does not kill cancer; it just cleans the body out. We’ve had success with animals that have melanomas, suspicious-looking basal cell tumors, or even mast cell tumors of the skin. We put them on Essiac once or twice a day and the tumors shrivel up within a couple of weeks.”

Aloe vera is another popular support remedy for cancer patients. Aloe vera juice or gel can be given internally with food and applied externally to growths and tumors. In his book Cancer Therapy: The Independent Consumer’s Guide to Non-Toxic Treatment and Prevention, Ralph Moss, PhD, reports that both aloe and its cousin garlic are widely used as adjuvants, or helpers, with other therapies.

Taken internally and applied topically, aloe may help prevent infections, increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy, protect against radiation therapy skin injury, and support the liver during detoxification.

Anyone who thinks that dogs don’t have feelings just isn’t paying attention. These creatures are emotional sponges.

“It’s so important to keep our own emotions under control,” says Dr. Falck. “If you panic, your dog is going to feel your stress and anxiety, and those emotions are not helpful. My suggestion to owners who are dealing with cancer is to focus on things that you can do, things that are helpful and positive, not on things that leave you depressed or worried.

“For example, if your dog has a good appetite, here’s a chance to upgrade her diet. You can do research and learn about her illness and things you can do at home to support her or make her more comfortable. You can also keep a journal in which you record everything your dog is experiencing, from symptoms to supplements to special events or activities. This is an excellent way to document her progress. Instead of just worrying, you can channel your energy into something constructive.”

Dr. Falck recommends turning your attention away from the dog’s present symptoms by focusing on memories of her healthy past. “Keep her favorite activities in your mind as a mental image,” she says, “and let those thoughts carry you to thoughts about the best possible outcome.”

Flower essences or flower remedies, including the famous Bach Rescue Remedy, can help canine patients and their human companions cope with emotional stress. “Rescue Remedy is the all-purpose formula,” she says, “but you can refer to books or symptom charts to select other essences that address specific emotions.”

Prepare a flower essence dosage bottle by mixing 2 to 4 drops of Rescue Remedy (or 2 drops each of up to 5 individual remedies) with 1 fluid ounce (2 tablespoons) filtered or spring water in a small glass bottle equipped with an eyedropper or spray top. The standard dose is 4 drops of the diluted remedy, which can be added to drinking water, dropped directly onto the nose or into the mouth, massaged into the ears, applied to paw pads, applied to bare skin on the abdomen, or sprayed in the air or directly on the patient. The secret to success with flower remedies is frequent application, so do this as often as possible, several times per day. And dose yourself, too. Anything you do to bring your own energy into balance will help your dog.

Calming essential oils and hydrosols (see “Smell This, You’ll Feel Better,” December 2004, and “Essential Information,” January 2005) are a boon to cancer patients and their families. For an excellent guide to this subject, see Holistic Aromatherapy for Animals by Kristen Leigh Bell.

Whatever protocol you choose for your dog, holistic support therapies can make a world of difference. These gentle, nontoxic, whole-body treatments invite the participation of everyone in the family and promise your dog a more comfortable, happy, active life.

-A long-time contributor to WDJ and author of The Encyclopedia of Natural Pet Care, Natural Remedies for Dogs & Cats, and other books, CJ Puotinen lives in New York with her husband, a Lab, and a tabby cat.


  1. I was really hoping someone could advise me on Essaic Capsules, I heard it contains rhubarb root
    which I thought was toxic for dogs

    Is it safe? my dog is super sensitive and I worry about the Rhubarb root
    Is it different from Rhubarb leaves?
    I would appreciate your advise so much

    Thank you