Home » Pet Health » Ionizing Radiation and Cancer in Pets


Studies report that ionizing radiations such as X-rays and gamma rays are risk factors for cancer development. These ionizing radiations carry a high amount of energy that can damage the DNA, eventually leading to cancer. Both pets and their owners are susceptible to the harmful effects of ionizing radiation.

How do ionizing radiations cause cancer?

Low levels of radiation exposure may not have immediate health effects on humans and pets; however, they increase the risk of developing cancer over a lifetime. There is a direct association between cancer development and the dose of ionizing radiation. A higher amount poses a greater risk of cancer development, while this risk decreases with a reduced dose.

How are pets exposed to X-rays and gamma radiation?

In pets, exposure to X-rays and gamma rays is not as common as exposure to UV rays from the sun. However, exposure can occur from the following sources:

    • Natural background radiation of cosmic rays and radioactive elements found in rocks and soil
    • Radon gas formed from the breakdown of radioactive elements in the ground; radon levels can be higher inside buildings and homes, particularly in basements
    • Medical radiation for diagnostic scans, such as X-rays; these tests expose people to low levels of ionizing radiation
    • Radiation therapy using high doses of ionizing radiation to kill cancer cells; such therapy may cause DNA mutations in cells that survive the radiation, leading to secondary tumors
    • Artificial radiation used in food irradiation, airport security scanners, and nuclear accidents.

Signs your pet has acute radiation syndrome (ARS)

Acute radiation syndrome (ARS) or “radiation sickness” is a very serious illness that arises after a human or pet has been exposed to large amounts of radiation, usually over a short span of time. While this is rare, it is important to be able to recognize the symptoms in your pet. Some symptoms include:

    • Vomiting
    • Diarrhea
    • Fever
    • Loss of appetite
    • Seizures

Types of cancer linked to ionizing radiation

Ionizing radiation can lead to many different types of cancer, including liver, lung, and heart tumors. The most common cancer caused by radiation, however, is bone cancer. This is because the density of bone tissue allows the bone to absorb more radiation molecules than the surrounding soft tissue. This means the bone gets a much stronger dose of radiation compared to other parts of the body.

How can you prevent your pets from exposure to ionizing radiation?

Generally, your pet is at low risk of developing cancer or illnesses from X-rays and gamma radiation. If you are worried about your pet’s cancer risk, consider taking some precautions to reduce exposure to medical and artificial sources. For example, only use medical imaging tests when necessary. Talk to your vet about shielding non-imaged body parts if the test is needed. Overall, X-rays and gamma rays are potent forms of radiation; however, your pet has a low risk of exposure throughout their life.

Understanding the risks associated with ionizing radiation and learning how your pet may be exposed are essential to keeping your pet free from radiation’s harmful effects. If you suspect your pet has been exposed and is showing signs of acute radiation sickness, consult your vet to discover the best treatment options for a speedy recovery so you can get your furry friend back on their feet in no time.

The Pet Cancer Foundation’s Website Editorial team is comprised of veterinarians, veterinary oncologists, and veterinary technicians, as well as scientific writers and editors who have attained their PhD’s in the life sciences, along with general editors and research assistants. All content found in this section goes through an extensive process with multiple review stages, to ensure this extended resource provides pet families with the most up-to-date information publicly available.

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Keep Your Pets Healthy Editorial Team

Last Updated: October 11, 2022

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The following sources were referenced to write the content on this page:

Gillette SM, Gillette EL, Powers BE, Withrow SJ 1990, ‘Radiation-induced osteosarcoma in dogs after external beam or intraoperative radiation therapy’, Cancer Research, vol. 50, no. 1, pp. 54-57.

Hosoya K, Poulson JM, Azuma C 2008, ‘Osteoradionecrosis and radiation induced bone tumors following orthovoltage radiation therapy in dogs’, Vet Radiology and Ultrasound, vol. 49, no. 2, pp.189-95.

Spatola GJ, Ostrander EA, Mousseau TA 2021, ‘The effects of ionizing radiation on domestic dogs: a review of the atomic bomb testing era’, Biological Reviews of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, vol. 96, no. 5, pp. 1799-1815

The Pet Cancer Foundation’s medical resource for pet owners is protected by copyright.

For reprint requests, please see our Content Usage Policy.