Is the Early Cancer Detection Blood Test Worthwhile?

OncoK9 recommends screening for giant and high-risk breeds at younger ages.
OncoK9’s recommended ages to start cancer screening

If you’ve been in a vet office lately, you might have seen a brochure advertising the OncoK9 blood test, an early-detection cancer screening test.

I first heard of it when I took Cali to a specialist who ended up diagnosing her hemangiosarcoma. By then, we had done the ultrasounds and were on our way to the splenectomy, so I didn’t “need” the test; I knew she had cancer.

The blood test “uses a simple blood draw to detect abnormal DNA released into circulation by cancer cells,” and claims to be able to pick up on these markers before the dog would be likely to have any symptoms. Dogs with some cancers, like hemangiosarcoma, rarely show any symptoms. OncoK9 is said to be able to detect 30 different types of cancer, including several very common canine cancers.

The company recommends it annually for dogs aged 7 and older, with different guidelines for cancer-prone breeds. They suggest starting screening at age 6 for goldens, for example, and age 4 for boxers (see illustration above).

Should you do it?

I can’t answer that, but I can share the pros and cons I see.

An argument for doing the test is that early detection gives you the best chance to treat some cancers.

Now for the “cons.” The test detects cancer markers, or claims to, but it does not give any indication of the type or location of the cancer.

A friend who works for a vet in another state reports that her clinic looked into the test, and her vet worries about the high potential for false negatives — not catching the presence of cancer markers — as well as the smaller, but still present, chance of false positives. Paired with the lack of indication of what type of cancer the dog has, a false positive could send a family on a very costly, stressful wild goose chase to try to identify the nonexistent cancer.

This vet says the test “might be helpful” for a dog with unexplained weight loss and no other evidence of disease; that’s far from a blanket recommendation for an annual check!

Finally, the cost: The test costs $500 at my specialty clinic. Cost will vary by location, but it’s not an inexpensive test. A few hundred dollars (or more) is a hefty addition to your dog’s annual checkup, and it’s unlikely that pet insurance would cover it.

My specialist vet’s office told me that, following a positive test, the next steps would be tests to figure out the type and stage of the cancer. And that anyone with a positive test gets a $1,000 credit toward that testing. I assume that this is because the company that does the OncoK9 test uses the follow-up and test data to refine the test and/or to work on treatments. Either way, the hefty sum tells me that a) the follow-up testing is pricey and b) they don’t expect a huge proportion of positives.

What do you DO with a positive result?

That raises the next obvious question, which is: If I were to get a positive test result, what would I do?

  • If you are not prepared to go down the expensive route of testing to identify and stage the cancer, then treat it … I’m not sure what you gain by doing the test.
  • If you are, and you have a dog of a breed that is likely to get cancer, then early detection and treatment could give you more time with your dog and/or lead you to an early treatment that spares your dog some suffering, depending of course on what additional testing you did, how quickly you identified the dog’s cancer, and whether it was a treatable cancer — all significant questions.

Whether to do the test (and what to do afterward) is, of course is a very individual decision.

Orly is only 1. I am certainly hoping that we have more reliable, less costly ways to detect (early) and effectively treat canine cancer before she’s of an age where I’d face the question of whether to do this type of test. Cali spent her life helping to make that happen; and the many researchers working on canine cancer detection and treatment offer hope for future pups.

Teach Your Old Dog New Games

An elderly golden retriever touches a computer screen with her nose.A team of researchers at the Clever Dog Lab (oh, how I’d love to work there …) at the Messerli Research Institute in Vienna suggest teaching older dogs to play brain games on touchscreen computers and tablets. Yup, Lumosity for dogs.

The researchers have some games that they developed and tested out and that they are now trying to prepare for retail sale. That’s all well and good, but the real premise of their study is that older dogs need — and benefit greatly from — mental stimulation and training. And that most dog owners (and trainers) don’t really do much training with older dogs.

While dog sports like agility might be beyond the capabilities of, say, an arthritic golden retriever (as Jana was during her last years), some dog classes can work for older dogs. Jana loved every second of her nose work classes (well, except the seconds that other dogs got to look for treats and she was not in the ring). The instructor, at the beginning of the first class, told us handlers that the dogs could bark as much as they wanted and we were not to use the ‘N’ word. (No.) Jana had found her doggy paradise.

Throughout her life and well into old age, Jana’s mind was sharp and, if a cookie-earning opportunity arose, she’d stick with the challenge until she’d earned and eaten every last crumb. We did exercises on canine fitness equipment, practiced imitation games, and worked with picture cards that Jana could choose: ball, tug toy, popsicle. (For some reason, she always went for popsicle…) I never thought of teaching her to use a computer, but I am sure she’d have mastered that as well.

Cali sleeps on her dog bed, cradling a tennis ball with her paws.Cali is less intellectually oriented than Jana, but she does love nose work. I suspect that age is less of a factor than temperament. Cali’s not interested enough in learning (or earning treats) to really work at much. She’ll stick with a nose work search longer than she’ll work at a Kong or other food toy. And she’ll play with a tennis ball all day (and take it to bed at night). I doubt she’d enjoy computer games, though she does love TV, so I could be wrong about that.

My main takeaway from the dogs and computers study has nothing to do with whether dogs want to, need to, or should learn to use computers, though. It is all about us: Don’t give up on your older dog. Figure out what she loves about her favorite activities and adapt them for her changing physical needs. Keep challenging her and offering stimulation. It will keep her mentally fit — and keep your bond strong.

Tips for Keeping Older Dogs Safe and Comfortable


A beloved friend, Molly, turns 14 today (November 13). Happy Birthday, Molly!

In her honor, I wanted to share some tips for helping older dogs stay safe and comfortable.

When Jana started having trouble getting up because she slipped on the smooth floors, I followed a tip from my aunt and got rubber mats. They are not the most attractive addition to household decor, but they work. Yoga mats can be used as well. The most important place to put them is near the dog’s bed(s). We lived in a tiny apartment, and I put them all along the hall and in the bedroom, giving Jana a non-slip path from bed to door. Oh, and the bed? A really nice, big, memory foam dog bed from Costco. Jana sure loved to sleep on the floor next to that bed …

Keep the dog as active as is feasible. Even a slow walk is important. It gives the dog a chance to stretch her legs, move around, sniff and catch up on the neighborhood news. Even when she was well past even pretending to want to play ball, Jana wanted to walk with Cali and me to the park, where she greeted friends, begged for cookies, and rolled in the grass.

Keep nails trimmed. Long nails can hurt when the dog walks. They also exacerbate any balance or joint issues, which are common in older dogs. Many dog owners neglect their dogs’ nails. Even if long walks on sidewalks kept the nails to a reasonable length when the dog was young, an older dog who walks less (and experiences poor balance and possible joint pain) is likely to need more attention to the nails.

Make it a priority to do activities that you know your dog loves doing. A huge regret I have is not taking Jana to the dog beach more often. Other activities she enjoyed included hanging out at the corner cafe (sans Cali), solo walks, sunning herself in the yard, visiting her friend in a nearby office, and any activity that involved cookies.

If there are younger pets or kids in the family, teach them to treat the senior with gentleness and respect, and intervene if necessary to ensure that the youngster doesn’t push the older dog around or treat her roughly.

Make sure that her food and water bowls are in a place that’s easier for her to reach, or elevate them so a large dog doesn’t have to lean (that balance again …) down to eat and drink. Jana seemed to really appreciate her elevated bowls.

Take a look around your house. Are there stairs that the dog has trouble navigating? Does she have trouble getting into or out of the car? We had no stairs, so that wasn’t an issue for Jana. I kept the passenger seat in the car moved up so she could easily step into the foot space and then onto the seat. She needed help sometimes, but preferred to get in and out alone. When she was weak, though, I used a sling to help lift her into the car. A towel works in a pinch. If you do have stairs, and your dog is prone to stumbling or becoming confused, consider blocking the stairs with a baby gate for safety. When we were in a house with lots of stairs, I would block the stairs to discourage Jana from following me if I ran up to get something. She always wanted to follow me, but if I was coming right back, I wanted to spare her the effort and pain of extra trips. She disagreed, so I used the baby gates.

Look into supplements, medications, and alternative treatments than can help with chronic issues, especially pain. I limited the amount of Rimadyl that Jana needed by taking her for regular laser therapy treatments, which reduced her arthritis pain and stiffness. Not all dogs respond to the same treatments, so you might need to try a few different things. But once you hit on something that helps, you will know; the dog will be more playful and happy. Some of the lying around and sleeping is a response to pain, not an inevitable part of aging.

Get regular vet checkups. I took Jana in for checkups and blood work twice a year after about age 8. Watch for behavior changes and discuss them with your vet. Some older dogs get a form of dementia. Learn more about what that looks like on this blog: Dog Dementia: Help and Support. Regular vet visits are a great place to learn about supplements and treatments; I also recommend the Whole Dog Journal and Dogs, Naturally; both are great resources. Also, consider a home visit from a palliative care vet. A veterinarian with expertise on aging issues can look around your house and recommend steps to make it safer and more comfortable for your aging dog. She might pick up on behaviors or problems that you hadn’t noticed or had gotten used to.

Older dogs are great company, and, like any longtime friend, you want them to be with you forever. Keep your senior dog safe and comfortable, and treasure every day you get to share.