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With dogs living longer than they did many generations ago, rates of cancer are on the rise. The American Veterinary Medical Association explains that nearly half of dogs over the age of 10 will develop some form of cancer. There are many types of cancer in dogs, and perhaps you're already familiar with some of the more common forms. But what about the less common types of dog cancer? Does cancer in dogs always have clear signs?
Like in people, any kind of cancer carries a better prognosis if it's detected early. However, many dogs don't show signs until the cancer is advanced, which can limit treatment options. It's important to be informed about the different types of cancer that can develop in dogs so you can be aware of ways to test for or detect these cancers.
Blood cancers rarely show signs until they're severe. Fortunately, leukemia isn't common in dogs (its cousin, lymphoma, is much more common). Leukemia is typically diagnosed with a blood test. In some cases, a leukemia diagnosis comes as a surprise — for example, during routine blood work on an older dog or with a pre-dental blood test. Other times, your dog might have a fever, have lost weight or simply isn't acting themselves, so your veterinarian will start with some blood tests. According to the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, leukemia can be treated with chemotherapy, sometimes in a pill form. How far it's advanced and whether your dog shows signs can be indicators of prognosis.
2. Prostate Cancer
Yes, dogs can get prostate cancer too — though it accounts for less than 1% of all types of dog cancer diagnoses, says the Open Veterinary Journal. Unfortunately, a blood test isn't available to screen for this type of cancer as it is for humans. Signs your dog may have prostate cancer include pain while passing stool or bloody or discolored urine. Your vet can perform a rectal exam during your buddy's yearly exam and check for abnormalities in the shape or size of the prostate. Large dogs may have a prostate that's too deep for a vet to palpate, so X-rays or an ultrasound are a good next step. While the prognosis for untreated dogs is only roughly one month according to Veterinary Sciences, surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or a combination of these treatments can help manage signs and extend life.
3. Bladder Cancer
Speaking of abnormal urine, bladder cancer is another less common cancer in dogs. BluePearl Pet Hospital explains that the most common form is transitional cell carcinoma (TCC), and it most often occurs in Shetland sheepdogs, Scottish terriers, West Highland terriers, wirehair fox terriers and beagles. With this cancer, your dog may strain to urinate or may have no signs at all. Bladder cancer can be diagnosed via urinalysis through suspicious cells in the urine. Imaging techniques such as ultrasounds along with biopsies are often the best way to diagnose bladder tumors, says BluePearl. Depending on the tumor's location in the bladder, surgical removal may be an option, but these tumors tend to grow in regions of the bladder where they can't be removed. Piroxicam is an example of an effective oral treatment with minimal side effects. While survival times can vary widely from dog to dog, TCC is considered a treatable disease, explains Purdue College of Veterinary Medicine.
4. Brain Tumors
Many types of tumors can grow in the brain, but the presentation is similar for most. NC State Veterinary Hospital lists a number of possible signs. Your dog might have a change in personality or forget learned behaviors. They may start drinking excessive amounts of water or pace or circle constantly, or you may notice that their pupils have become different sizes. Some dogs seem mentally dull, and depending on the tumor size or location, they could start having seizures. Any senior dog who starts having seizures without any prior history of them should be evaluated and screened for brain tumors by a veterinarian. Unfortunately, there's no great cure for many brain tumors. Surgery, medication and/or radiation therapy are potential treatment options for this type of cancer. Discussion with your veterinarian or a board-certified veterinary neurologist can provide you with the best advice on long-term outcome depending on the type of brain tumor.
5. Anal Gland Carcinoma
If your dog has to get their anal glands expressed often, they're getting a regular rectal exam — which can diagnose anal gland, or anal sac, carcinoma early. Also, routine blood work can sometimes provide evidence of this hidden cancer as this specific tumor can sometimes cause increased calcium levels. This abnormal laboratory finding can trigger a more detailed assessment of your dog and may allow detection to this type of cancer early in the disease process. Otherwise, this cancer often hides until you notice swelling near your dog's anus. With anal gland carcinoma, when your vet examines the area, they'll find a large mass that often extends deep into the pelvis. Unlike an anal sac abscess, this swelling isn't typically painful. According to NC State Veterinary Hospital, signs may include scooting, bloody stool, constipation and licking the area. Anal gland carcinomas can be surgically removed if they haven't already spread to other areas of the body, and chemotherapy and radiation are sometimes helpful.
Coping With Your Dog's Cancer Diagnosis
Did you know there are vets who specialize in oncology? These board-certified oncology specialists work exclusively with pets diagnosed with cancer. If your family vet has given you the news that your furry friend has cancer, consider asking them to connect you with a specialist they trust. An oncologist can discuss treatment options and give you an idea of what to expect. What quality of life will your dog have? What if you want to do just two rounds of radiation treatments and not the whole package? What happens if you try a round of chemo and realize it isn't for you and your dog? When might you need to consider end-of-life decisions? There are as many questions as there are types of dog cancer, and an oncologist can help you answer them.
An oncologist can help you make the best decision for your buddy, whether this is aggressive treatment or no treatment at all. Not every dog wants to go through treatment, and that's OK. Sometimes spoiling your friend and optimizing the quality of their final weeks or months — as opposed to the quantity — is the best option. Dogs simply want to wake up in the morning and enjoy their day with a ball toss and a belly rub. Remember that as a pet parent, you have one job: to love your pet and give them the best life for the time they have — however long that is.
Dr. Karen Louis
Dr. Karen Louis own a small animal practice near St. Louis, MO. When not helping dogs and cats live their best lives, she enjoys biking and wildlife photography.