Choosing a Canine Cancer Diet

Table of Contents

Overview | Foods | Nutrients | Homemade | Q&A


"Providing your dog with a canine cancer diet is one of tools used to slow down the growth of cancer. While diet isn't considered a way to manage the disease itself, it is used to extend survival times and to improve a dogs quality of life, regardless of whether they are undergoing treatment. Since some nutritionists believe that carbohydrates "feed" cancer cells, while other nutrients such as proteins do not, the goal is to change the components in a dogs diet so that cancer cells are starved or are slowed down. This is a general guideline, but does not apply to dogs that are emaciated or dogs that have had tumors removed since there is no longer a need to "starve" the tumor.

This is done by changing the balance of macro nutrients, the building blocks of food, such as a fats, proteins, and carbohydrates, and micro nutrients, which are vitamins/antioxidants and herbal products/natural remedies. Several fruits and vegetables listed below are also thought to play a role in cancer prevention.

Not all dietary change is created equal. For example, if a dog has a tumor removed, starving a tumor of carbohydrates no longer makes sense. If a dog has excessive body fat, this can be turned into carbohydrates by the body, making it difficult to starve the tumor. This is why cancer patient often look so thin, since the body is consuming body fat to feed the tumor.

Also, increasing protein levels and reducing carbohydrates changes the PH of the body to be more acidic. Tumors grow better in bodies with an acidic PH, so this needs to be addressed. As you can see, the specific condition of your dog, and the type of cancer will dictate the appropriate changes in the diet.

Often the decline is in a dogs physiology (general health) when suffering from cancer or a neoplasm is due to poor eating habits and nutrition vs. the cancer itself, since a sick dog may have a reduced appetite or desire to eat. Cancer can also change the metabolism, making it difficult to absorb nutrients. For these reasons, dietary change and the addition of some supplements, fruits and vegetables can help to prevent lean body body mass loss and malnutrition in cancer patients.

It is also believed that exercise and remaining lean are the best ways to prevent or slow the development of cancer in dogs. In one study Scottish Terriers that ate a diet that included green leafy vegetables or yellow-orange vegetables (not cruciferous vegetables) were at less risk of developing cancer. This approach worked even better than providing vitamin supplements.

It you are looking for a commercial diet, consider Hill's Prescription Diet Canine n/d since Hill's has produced research showing the ability of this diet to improve a patient's quality of life and longevity."

The Science Behind Canine Cancer Diets


Many nutritionists believe that a canine cancer diet can be an important tool in helping the health of your dog. The fundamental principle is along the lines of "starve the cancer, feed the dog." When planning a canine cancer diet there are some general rules for feeding a dog with cancer. Some believe that cancer cells react to different types of foods with some types fueling the spread of cancer and others having a more positive effect in terms of slowing down the ability of cancer cells to multiply.

Dog Cancer Diet

In general, research in the field confirms that improving the nutrition your dog receives, and the levels of protein helps to retain lean body mass. Protein is also the food component that dogs like to eat. That said, it is still too early to know for certain if a change to a high-protein diet can help a dog that has cancer. If anything, the research is pointing to cancer prevention or to slowing down cancer.

Cancer cancer diet components in order of importance:

  • Water/hydration
  • Calories and protein
  • Minerals and vitamins

The moment you discover your dog has cancer, you should discuss with your veterinarian changing your pet's diet. Mal-nourishment is common in dogs with cancer, so It is important that your pet continues to eat even though the treatment and being ill may result in a reduced appetite. While it is better to eat, than not eat, avoid food such as table scraps, which do not have the measured amounts of each nutrient a dog with cancer needs.

Canine Cancer and Diet Research

The foundation for dietary change is based on research originally conducted in the 1930s. Researchers observed that cancer cells grew faster in the laboratory when fed glucose, another name for sugar or carbohydrates. The dog body is much more complex than this environment, however, but at least in the laboratory there is some effect.

Fast forward to the year 2000 where a study was conducted with 32 dogs (a relatively small sample). Two dogs in the study that were suffering from Stage III lymphoma were fed low-carb diets along with chemotherapy. Dog who were on the low-carb diet that included the amino acid arginine and fish oil had longer survival times than dogs that ate a low-carb diet without the supplements.

The study did not clarify whether the longer survival times were due to the fish oil, the arginine or the combination, or another factor. Studies have also not tested other types of cancer, since each type would theoretically behave differently.

Because of the lack of research, but findings that are directional and positive in nature, many veterinarians will recommend a dog cancer diet that is higher in protein, along with moderate-fat and moderate-carbohydrate levels. The ratio of these ingredients has not been set by research. Typical rations are found below.

Even if carbohydrates are eliminated from a canine cancer diet, the body will create glucose or carbohydrates on its own by naturally converting proteins. For this reason, there will always be some carbohydrates in the diet, but the absolute amount can be reduced by what is fed to the dog.

Stages of Nutrition Status in Dog Cancer Patients

Dogs with cancer often pass through four stages of nutritional decline when fighting cancer.

No clinical symptoms, blood profile changes
Clinical symptoms start such as weight loss, lethargy, anorexia. Might start to see any side effects of treatment.
Referred to as cancer cachexia. Dog parents will see a decline in the patient.  Symptoms such as weakness and lethargy more pronounced.
Called the remission or recovery phase. Here the dog patient may have a food aversion as a byproduct of side effects such as nausea or vomiting.

Foods That Should Be Part Of A Canine Cancer Diet

Formulating a canine cancer diet has to do with finding the correct balance of what are referred to as macronutrients (fats, protein, carbohydrates) and micronutirents (vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and amino acids, herbs ). The nutrition strategy selected for a dog sets the optimal level of each of these food components.

We recommend having a nutritionist develop a canine cancer diet for you. Cornell University Hospital for animals will develop a diet for a reasonable consulting fee. They can be reached at 607-253-3060. The Cornell nutritionists can also provide advice on supplements for cancer patients. Many oncologists do not recommend supplements since there is no proven evidence that they work. There is also some concern that supplements can interfere with chemotherapy.

Fundamentals of Canine Cancer Nutrition

  • A dog with cancer should get their energy from the fat and protein in food, instead of carbohydrates. Protein helps to fight deterioration in the muscles. Note that you cannot completely eliminate sugars in the body since even some protein naturally gets converted into glucose.
  • Recommended Ratios:
    -- Protein: 20% to 25% of energy (calories) from organic fish, chicken, yogurt or turkey
    -- Fat: 40% to 50%, depending on how the dog's gastrointestinal system is responding to any treatment
    -- Carbohydrates: any remaining calories
  • Fruits and Vegetables: Several fruits and vegetables are believed to play a role in cancer prevention. These include:
    -- Carrots
    -- Broccoli
    -- Kale
    -- Apples
    -- Pears
    -- Pomegranate
  • Omega 3 fatty acids can help a dog's body fight the growth of cancer cells in the body. Fish oil is the preferred source. The rationale for Omega-3 acids is the understanding that some tumors have difficulty using fats or lipids to fuel cell growth. Tumors will deplete carbohydrate and protein levels before fats.
  • Amino acids work to slow tumor growth as part of a canine cancer nutrition program. Specific acids (called branched chain acids) that help include:
    -- Arginine
    -- Glutamine
    -- Leucine
    -- Isoleucine
    -- Valine

These amino acids can be found in food components as indicated below:

Examples of Branched Chain Amino Acid Levels in Selected Raw Ingredients Used in Dog Foods
(Source: Royal Canin Internal Data)

% Of The Protein Of The Food

Leucine Isoleucine Valine Total BCAA's
(branched chain acids)

Poultry protein

6.5 3.5 4.3


Corn Gluten

14.7 3.6 4.2


Corn 13.0 3.9 5.1 22.0
Barley 7.0 3.8 5.3 16.1


7.7 4.1 5.6


  • Antioxidants (vitamin c, e, b-catotene, polyphonols, selenium) is though to be of help, but avoid these supplements 1 week before and after chemotherapy treatment. Even here the research is confusing. Some antioxidants when added to culture dishes that contain osteosarcoma fueled the growth of cancer while in other dishes there was an inhibiting effect.
  • Eating is more important than not eating. Getting the right balance of each food component in a dog cancer food is a secondary consideration. If a dog will not switch foods, add fish oil to the current diet.
  • Lycopene, a substance found in tomatoes, has slowed the growth of some osteosarcoma cell cultures in a culture dish. This does not mean it will work in your dog.

Balancing Macronutrients in a Canine Cancer Diet

In most commercial dog foods, there is a high concentration of carbohydrates, which the body turns into glucose, a form of sugar. Cancerous (neooplasitc) tissues seek glucose as their source of energy. The first goal of a canine cancer diet is to limit carbohydrates, so that cancer cells need to seek other forms of energy, which slows them down and keeps them from multiplying as fast.

Instead of carbohydrates, a canine cancer diet rich in fat and protein are preferred. Dog foods labeled for dogs that are stressed or for active dogs have this type of nutritional profile. Premium or specialty foods are preferred, since they contain higher quality proteins. There are prescription diets specifically formulated for dogs with cancer such as Hill's Prescription Diet n/d. This is the only commercial canine cancer diet to have conducted clinical research that proves that it improves the quality of life and longevity of dog cancer patients.

Consult with your Veterinarian when selecting a canine cancer diet. According to Canine Cancer Awareness a good rule of thumb is to buy a food that "contains natural ingredients or human grade elements".

One of our readers wrote in to suggest "high protein grain-free foods like EVO, Nature's Variety Instinct, Blue Buffalo Wilderness, Taste of the Wild, or other similar diets" may be of help for a canine cancer diet.

Do not completely avoid complex sugars (see list below) as although they fuel cancer cells, they also contribute to muscle development. Because of this, they should only be moderately reduced. The net result is a canine cancer diet should consist of limited simple sugars or carbohydrates, moderate amounts of complex sugars, high quality digestible proteins (in moderate amounts), and specific amounts of certain types of fat. Soluble and insoluble fiber can help to keep the gastrointestinal tract functioning properly.

A canine cancer diet recommended by R.M. Clemmens DVM suggests that an ideal food should be in the following ratio:

  • moderate protein (18-22%)
  • low carbohydrate (3-13%)
  • high fat (55-60%)

To help you identify what is in dog food, here is a guide for what to look for:

  • Simple sugars: any processed sugar and fruit sugar including rice syrup, molasses, honey, corn syrup, maple sugar or syrup, glucose, sucrose and dextrose. Almost anything ending in "ose" is considered a simple sugar. More examples of simple sugars would be milk, fruits and vegetables such as carrots, beets, squash, turnip and sweet potatoes.
  • Complex sugars (complex carbohydrates): These sugars supply muscle energy, but also fuel cancer cells. Complex sugar is found in bread, cereal, grain, rice, potatoes, vegetables, fruits and pasta.
  • Digestible protein: Protein helps to rebuild cells. It is found in egg whites, chicken (white meat), lean beef, beans, skim milk and lamb.
  • Fat: As mentioned, only healthy cells benefit from fat. Fats may provide more energy than carbohydrates or proteins. It provides a source of essential fatty acids for healthy skin and coat. It also transports the fat-soluble vitamins A,D,E and K.

What To Do If Your Dog Will Not Allow a Change in Food

If you cannot change food your dog eats, ask your veterinarian about using supplements along with the food to create a variation of the optimal canine cancer diet. Most will recommend the addition of fish oil as a source of Omega-3 fatty acids such as the product Only Natural Salmon Oil for Dogs. If your dog refuses to eat fish oil, try and buy lemon scented or descented oil. Alternatives such as flax seed have not been fully investigated as an alternative source of Omega-3 for dogs.

Balancing Micronutrients such as Vitamins, Antioxidants and Natural Remedies

There are many vitamins, supplements and herbs that could have a positive affect on your dog's health. Consult with your veterinarian to select the ones worth trying. The consensus on vitamins as part of a canine cancer diet is that they can have some positive effect when used in moderation. They will not hurt but may help the patient.

In general, n-3 fatty acids and antioxidants should be part of the diet. Supplements with arginine, cystine and glutamine to help the immune system.

In terms of specific anti-oxidants and fatty acids which help to rebuild healthy cells, look for:

It is important not do overdose antioxidants. Check with your veterinarian, particularly if your dog is undergoing radiation or chemotherapy since there are a few studies that indicate that antioxidants could have a negative effect one week before or after treatment.

A general guideline is to provide the following vitamins per pound of your dog per day as part of your canine cancer diet plan:

  • Vitamin A – 625 IU
  • Vitamin C – 25 milligrams
  • Vitamin E – 10 IU
  • Selenium – 2 micrograms

Herbal Products Could Help to Stimulate the Immune System (called Immunostimulants)

Several herbs may have a beneficial effect in canine cancer patients:

  • Echinacea: Widely regarded as helping the immune system. Available in capsules, tables and dried roots. It is widely used in Europe. Follow the instructions for giving to human adults (check with your veterinarian first).
  • Astragalus: Recent studies show that this herb has antiviral and immune-boosting effects. Follow the directions for adult dosing.
  • Cat's Claw (una de gato): Believed to have anti tumor properties There is some evidence that it leads to remission of brain and other tumors. Consider cat's claw for tumors of the central nervous system. According to R.M. Clemmon's, DVM use ¼ the adult human dose for small dogs, ½ for medium dogs and the equivalent dose in large dogs.
  • Reishi and Maitake Mushrooms: Helps the immune system. Activates NK Killer cells that attack tumor cells and prevents the killing of T-Helper cells. There is no known toxicity from these mushroom extracts. Use ¼ the adult human dose for small dogs, ½ for medium dogs and the equivalent dose in large dogs.
  • Pau D'Arco: Anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory actions are associated with Pau D'Arco. Use ¼ the adult human dose for small dogs, ½ for medium dogs and the equivalent dose in large dogs.
  • Milk Thistle: Helps to protect the liver from damage during chemotherapy. Start at 1 capsule twice a day.
  • Shark Cartilage: Reduces tumor blood flow. If your dog has neoplasia, consider using 1000-2000 mg of shark cartilage daily. There is mixed evidence on the effectiveness of this supplement.

Products are available which combine many of these ingredients such as the C-Caps supplement. Natural remedies such as C-Caps are considered supportive therapies in that they effect the entire body vs. a specific prescription therapy which targets the disease itself. Ingredients in natural remedies can help to reduce the severity of symptoms associated with disease and help to strengthen the immune system of a dog fighting cancer.

Other supplements/ingredients which may be of benefit as part of a canine cancer diet include:

  • Beta-carotene
  • Ginkgo bilboa
  • Green or Eseiac tea (may help to sooth the oral cavity when undergoing radiation therapy)
  • Grape seed extract
  • Gammalinolenic acid (for cell membrane)
  • Coenzyme Q-10 (for cell membrane)
  • Wheatgrass extract (no evidence that it works)
  • Barley grass (no evidence that it works)
  • Garlic
  • Fiber (both the soluble and insoluble forms)

Supplements With No Proven Effect on Canine Cancer

  • Alfalfa: no evidence that it works, may have negative properties that harm the immune system)
  • Soybean Concentrate or Chlorella: not proven, consider if feeding commercial dog food)
  • Spirulina and chlorella (very expensive and advertised as miracle supplements. They provide protein, which you do not need, along with some vitamins and minerals. Claims made for these products are not substantiated.
  • Shark Cartilage

Homemade Canine Cancer Diet

In general, we suggest not formulating your own canine cancer diet or use a diet found on the Internet. Homemade diets for a dog with cancer may not have the proper balance of the 40 food components normally found in dog food. If you do find a diet you like, review it with your veterinarian or a veterinary nutritionist to ensure that it will meet your dogs needs.

Examples of homemade dog cancer diets that have the right balance of nutrients include:

Homemade Dog Cancer Diet
(1000 g diet)

Beef, minced meet (10% fat)

500 g

Cows Milk

130 g

Whole Egg 75 g
Potato, cooked with skin 255 g
Wheat Bran 20 g

Rapeseed oil

20 g

Be sure to add a mineral and vitamin supplement such as Only Natural Pet Super Daily Canine Multi-Vitamins to this canine cancer diet.

An alternative homemade dog cancer diet recommended by Dr. Deva Khalsa (see video at top of page) recommends for non-emaciated dogs:

  • Protein: 20% organic turkey, chicken, fish or yogurt
  • For 80% of the diet:
    -- Well Cooked brown rice with vegetables
        -- Cooked Kale
        -- Broccolli
        -- Cauliflower
        -- Carrots
        -- Parsely
    -- Cook with or provide butter, olive oil or coconut oil. These are the best oils to use in the food or for cooking
    -- Add at the end provide some finely diced garlic or fresh almonds

Tips To Encourage a Sick Dog to Eat

Do not push any selected dog cancer food or diet on a dog that does not want to eat. The key is to develop a feeding plan with your veterinarian that includes:

  • Fewer carbohydrates, simple forms of fiber
  • High quality protein
  • Higher fat levels (Omega-3)
  • Antioxidants
  • Appetizing taste and smell to your dog

Tips to encourage eating include avoiding feeding after you give your dog medicine or after changing a bandage. They may prefer cold food from the refrigerator since it will have reduced taste and smell. Other ideas include dividing one meal into several smaller meals. In cases where a dog will not eat at all, your veterinarian may prescribe an appetite stimulant. Food selected should be easy to digest. It should also appeal to your dog’s sense of taste and smell.

Speak to your veterinarian about which supplements or medications are required as part of a canine cancer diet and which can be skipped when your dog is not feeling well or not eating. If you are providing a supplement or medication that is sprinkled on food or added to food, we suggest adding them to a treat instead of changing the flavor of the main diet. Consider using a treat that has a strong covering flavor such as almond butter, liverwurst, baby food or pureed canned chicken. One trick is to provide a regular treat first, then the treat with the medication, and then a third regular treat. Provide praise and love when your dog is eating well to reinforce the behavior.

If all else fails, there are medications that can stimulate the appetite such as Megestrol acetate, cyproheptadine and Benzodiazepine (commonly called Valium and Oxazeoam). A veterinarian can also feed a patient using a feeding tube (called enteral route).

A dog parent should monitor eating behavior, body weight, and body condition during the course of treatment.


Guide to Creating a Dog Cancer Diet Available in a free Ebook

Available in a free Ebook

References for Canine Cancer Diet

Integrative Treatment of Cancer in Dogs
R.M. Clemmons, DVM, PhD
Associate Professor of Neurology & Neurosurgery
Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences
Nutrition and Cancer: New Keys for Cure and Control 2003!
Gregory K. Ogilvie, DVM, DACVIM (Internal Medicine & Oncology)
Colorado State University, Ft. Collins, CO, USA

Prostatic Disease in the Dog
Peter E. Holt, BVMS, PhD, ILTM, DECVS, CBiol, FIBiol, FRCVS
Professor of Veterinary Surgery, University of Bristol,
Department of Clinical Veterinary Science
Langford, Bristol, UK

Antony Moore, BVSC
Diplomate ACVIM
Director, Veterinary Oncology Consultants
379 Lake Innes Drive
Wauchope NSW 2446

Canine Brain Tumors: Improvements in Diagnosis and Treatment
R Chun
School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Neoplasia of the Nervous System (spinal tumors)
S. Long
School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania

Current Therapy for Canine Oral Tumors
M. Kessler
Tierklinik Hofheim, Germany

Nutritional Status of Dogs with Cancer: Dietetic Evaluation and Recommendations
J. J. Wakshlag1 and F.A. Kallfelz
College of Veterinary Medicine, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, US

Dog Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook
James M. Giffin, Liisa D. Carlson DVM