What is Renal Carcinoma?
If you haven’t heard about avian cancer, you’re certainly not alone. Perhaps it’s due to their remarkable beauty or their free-flying spirit, but the concept of cancer is not naturally associated with birds. However, it’s much more common than you would think. Renal carcinoma (otherwise known as kidney cancer) is a cancer that affects the kidneys in birds, and typically leads to the growth of tumors on one or both organs. Hearing the word cancer is enough to send most pet owners into orbit. Overcome with feelings of fear and dread, most bird owners will automatically assume that they will need to euthanize their avian companion in order to save it from years of pain and suffering.
Enormous gains have been made in the treatment of all types of cancer, not only for people, but also for all pets, including our beloved birds. So, if you have recently learned that your budgie or other bird species has developed cancer, in particular kidney cancer, try not to slip fully into gloom and doom. Of course, your veterinarian will have advised you upon diagnosis about treatment options, and possibly the prognosis for your bird. He or she is, of course, your best source of information about your bird’s cancer, as well as treatment options, care directions and prognosis.
In general, bird cancer does not appear to be a widespread disease at this time, but is becoming more common. Statistics show that avian cancer is a rare occurrence, but anytime it affects one bird, we know it can easily affect the next. Fortunately, in documented cases, birds with renal carcinoma have responded well to available treatments. Because there are not many cases, the veterinary research community has not been able to make significant progress in determining which type of cancer is most common in birds, and if some species of birds are more susceptible than others. There has been some indication that budgies are more likely than others to develop tumors (both malignant and benign) on organs including kidneys, testes and pituitary glands. For some reason, younger budgies (under five years old) appear to be the most susceptible to these types of cancers.
Why budgies are developing cancer disproportionately to other species is not definitively known, but a virus is considered the most likely reason. As with any disease, the outcome may depend upon the age and overall health of the bird. Older and younger birds have weaker or less developed immune systems, and thus are usually less able to battle disease. Birds with other diseases and conditions may be too compromised to withstand further treatment, which may include radiation, chemotherapy and surgery.
Renal Carcinoma (kidney cancer) is an often survivable cancer that occurs in birds of various species, but appears to especially target budgerigars (budgies).
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Symptoms of Renal Carcinoma in Birds
Budgerigars (budgies) appear to be the species most prone to cancer. As the cancer cells grow, the bird may develop lameness in one or both legs. The abdominal area becomes swollen and distended, possibly due to fluid accumulation. Some birds develop labored breathing, and an overall weak presentation. Other symptoms of renal tumors include:
- Increased urination
- Change in color of urine
- Blood in urine
- Chemical imbalance in the blood
- Increased or decreased thirst
- Difficulty in walking or movement
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
Causes of Renal Carcinoma in Birds
Cancer occurs when abnormal cells develop in any tissue or organ. In the case of avian renal carcinoma, malignant tumors develop on one or both kidneys. Cancer research on humans has taught us that cancer is caused by mutations in our DNA. As mutations continue to damage healthy cells, masses of cells (called tumors) may form. In some cases, the tumor will remain on the original organ, while other cases see the spread of tumors to other tissue. Mutations in the DNA of birds may be rooted in genetics, viral infections such as the herpes virus or papillomas, or possibly environmental factors. Noxious irritants to birds, as with humans, may include secondhand cigarette smoke.
Diagnosis of Renal Carcinoma in Birds
Diagnosis of renal cancer in birds is a complicated process that cannot be done by physical examination alone. While the exam is important, a vet cannot feel a tumor on a kidney. While blood tests are likely given, as well as x-rays, MRIs and CAT scans, the best method is the most direct. The veterinarian (likely a cancer specialist, an oncologist) must perform a biopsy, which involves removing cells from the kidney for examination under a microscope by a pathologist. Some biopsies will lead to the immediate removal of the kidneys or other diseased organs to reduce the stress of another procedure on the bird.
Treatment of Renal Carcinoma in Birds
If the tumor/s is not advanced, surgical removal can be effective in curing your bird’s cancer. During surgery, the specialist may be able to observe whether the tumor has metastasized (spread). Chemotherapy, chemotherapy medication and/or radiation may be other effective options. Opportunities for treatment are becoming more available, but still are limited to a few veterinary cancer centers. Many birds are surviving cancer, though long-term studies have not been fully conducted. It is important to act quickly after diagnosis, and make a decision that is best for you and your bird.
The best way to move forward with your bird on this new path is by educating yourself, listening to your vet, and seeing which treatments may reduce tumors.
Recovery of Renal Carcinoma in Birds
This will depend upon the choice of treatment. The veterinarian will ensure that the bird is comfortable during the treatment process if there is pain and stomach upset. Follow post-surgical instructions carefully. If your bird begins to decline in overall health and displays new symptoms, immediately advise your vet.