Diet decisions during cancer treatment

Feeding complete-and-balanced food is key

Your dog has cancer, and you want to do everything you can to help them. You may be concerned that they’ll need different food to help cope with side effects from medication or chemotherapy or that you should try to boost their immune system. Fortunately, it’s most likely that your dog does not need a radical diet change due to a cancer diagnosis. 

“I do not recommend a diet change unless there is a specific medical indication (e.g. decreased kidney function),” says Dr. Kelly R. Hume, associate professor of oncology in the Department of Clinical Sciences.

The most important thing to do when your dog is battling cancer is to feed them a quality, nutritionally-balanced diet that provides enough calories.

All about balance 

Your dog is probably already eating a complete and balanced diet. Good commercial dog food labels have a statement from the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) on the label. (AAFCO is a non-profit organization that develops standards for animal-food nutritional adequacy). The AAFCO statement on the bag tells you that the food is complete and balanced for either all life stages or for adult maintenance. Both are nutritionally correct for an adult dog.

The one place where you may need to adjust feeding is in terms of volume. If your dog begins to lose weight, they likely need to eat more. If they cannot consume more food, your oncologist may suggest a higher-calorie, fully-balanced, food.

Home-cooked diets 

If you are considering cooking at home for your dog, choose your recipes carefully. While there are plenty of recipes available online, many are not nutritionally adequate. Choose a recipe that has been evaluated by a veterinary nutritionist to make sure that your dog is getting everything that they need to keep their body in working order. 

“I think balanced, home-cooked diets, formulated by a veterinary nutritionist, can be beneficial for pets that are not used to eating a balanced, formulated commercial diet,” says Hume. “I do not think dogs that are doing well on their normal diet see benefits from a sudden change to a home-cooked diet.” 

An even better choice is to schedule a consultation with a board-certified veterinary nutritionist to come up with recipes that are tailored to your dog’s specific needs and preferences. This is especially important if your dog already has specific nutritional needs, such as food allergies, a history of pancreatitis, kidney disease or diabetes. 

Our Small Animal Clinical Nutrition program, run by the Loftus Lab in the College of Veterinary Medicine, is one resource for helping customize and formulate healthy diets for your dog. 

Skip the raw diets 

“I do not recommend a raw diet in pets undergoing cancer treatment,” Hume says. “Some cancers are associated with immunosuppression; and therefore, pets may be more susceptible to infection from bacteria in the raw diet. Some patients receiving chemotherapy have times when their immune cell counts are low — also making them more susceptible to infection.” 

While there are owners who have successfully fed their dogs raw diets even during cancer treatment, it just isn’t worth the increased risk. 

Avoid sudden changes 

A rapid diet change can make things difficult for your dog’s veterinarian. “Oncologists strive to maintain quality of life," Hume says. "If a cancer patient switches to a raw diet and develops gastrointestinal upset, it can be difficult to know if that is related to the diet change, a side effect of the cancer itself or a side effect of the cancer treatment."

If you need to make a change in your dog’s diet, do so gradually over the course of several days. Start by feeding 75% the old diet and 25% the new diet, then slowly adjust the proportions until your dog is completely switched over to the new diet over the course of 5-7 days. 

This article has been reprinted with permission from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine’s DogWatch newsletter, published by Belvoir Media Group. When you become a member of the Riney Canine Health Center, you will receive a free subscription to DogWatch.