The minute a veterinarian tells you your dog has cancer, your go numb. It’s the worst diagnosis pet parents can hear. Fear settles in and you’re suddenly filled with a million questions.
Is the cancer curable? How much time does my dog have? Is there anything we can do to slow the spread?
These are all normal questions for pet owners. The questions have answers, but the outcomes typically depend on the type of cancer, the stage of the cancer, and the treatment options available.
Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell). Lymphocytes are formed in bone marrow. If they develop a genetic mutation (as in lymphoma) the white cells no longer act the way they are supposed to. Instead, they hold onto the disease cells and continue to multiply.
It’s important to understand that some lymphomas are more aggressive than others. Sadly, however, there is no ultimate cure.
What Kind of Lymphoma Does My Dog Have?
Dog lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell formed in the bone marrow. They make up much of the lymphatic system which includes the lymph nodes, spleen, tonsils, bone marrow and vessels.
Their job is to help the immune system fight off infections and rid the body of toxins. Lymphoma develops when/if these white blood cells become abnormal.
When a dog is diagnosed with lymphoma, you automatically think of the lymph nodes. This is true. However, it’s important to understand that lymph nodes are located through the whole body.
Where to Feel For Swollen Lymph Nodes On Your Dog
If lymphoma is affected the lymph nodes near the body’s surface, you should be able to feel them. Places to look include:
- Under the dog’s jaw
- in front of the shoulders
- in the armpit
- behind the knee.
Over 30 types of lymphoma with each one behaving differently in the body. The most common types of canine lymphoma include:
Multicentric lymphoma (or lymphomasarcoma) involves multiple lymph nodes. It can affect the spleen, liver and bone marrow. This is the most common type of lymphoma diagnosed in dogs.
The first suspicion of this disease occurs when the dog’s lymph nodes become swollen. It’s thought that up to 85 percent of lymphoma in dogs are multicentric.
Dogs with this type of lymphoma tend to feel it in the gastrointestinal tract. It affects the stomach and/or intestines. This is the second most common type of lymphoma. Less than 10 percent of canine lymphomas fall in this category.
Extranodal lymphoma involves sites other than the lymph nodes. It targets organs such as the eyes, skin, kidneys, lungs or the central nervous system. In dogs, the most common type seen is known as cutaneous lymphoma.
Cutaneous lymphoma is a type of skin cancer that causes severe itching and rash. A biopsy is required to get an accurate diagnosis because it resembles other common skin conditions like dermatitis.
This type of cancer involves organs within the chest including lymph nodes or the dog’s thymus gland. Dogs with this type of cancer usually have trouble breathing. This type of cancer can cause a large mass in the chest. Fluid may accumulate in the chest (known as pleural effusion).
Dogs with mediastinal lymphoma may have swelling of the face or front legs. They may also have an increased need to urinate along with excessive thirst.
What Are The First Clinical Signs of Lymphoma in Dogs?
The signs of lymphoma in dog will vary depending on where the cancer is located. Given that multicentric lymphoma is the most commonly diagnosed cancer, any signs of the disease would likely occur in the lymph nodes.
Depending on how advanced the cancer is, your dog may also experience:
- loss of appetite
- weight loss
- increased thirst
- increased need to urinate
- difficulty breathing
- swelling or enlarged lymph nodes in the neck, back of the jaw, or behind the knees.
How it Lymphoma Diagnosed in Dogs?
Dogs with multicentric lymphoma may have very few clinical signs in the beginning. The veterinarian may notice enlarged peripheral lymph nodes.
Enlarged lymph nodes on their own may signify allergies or an infection of some kind. The veterinarian will want to rule out the more common reasons for swollen lymph nodes first.
Diagnosis usually involves:
Fine Needle Aspirate
FNA is performed on a lymph node through the insertion of a needle. That needle is used to remove a small number of cells for microscopic examination.
If it’s too difficult for the veterinarian to perform a fine needle aspirate, he/she may decide to do a biopsy. This involves the surgical removal of a tissue sample of the suspicious lymph node.
Baseline screening blood work is used to assess your dog’s overall health. They perform a complete blood cell count that assesses:
- quantity of red blood cells
- quantity of white blood cells
- platelet functioning
Serum biochemistry is another type of blood test. It is used to determine whether your dog’s internal organs are functioning properly.
This test uses specialized stains to tell the difference between different types of lymphoma. This test is used after the veterinarian has made the diagnosis of lymphoma. Understanding whether your dog has T-cell lymphoma or B-cell lymphoma will help with the doctor’s prognosis.
What is the Life Expectancy of a Dog with Lymphoma?
Generally speaking, dogs with lymphoma may only have a few months to live. Of course, this depends on the stage of the cancer at the time of diagnosis and whether your dog has T-cell or B-cell cancer.
- Stage 1 – single lymph node enlargement
- Stage 2 – regional lymph node enlargement
- Stage 3 – the liver and/or spleen is involved
- Stage 4 – bone marrow and blood are now involved
How Did My Dog Get Lymphoma?
Unfortunately, medical science hasn’t been able to pinpoint the exact cause of lymphoma in dogs. There are some theories, however, including:
- Chemical Exposure
- Physical factors including strong magnetic fields.
The last theory may sound like something out of science fiction. However, these invisible areas of energy (radiation) can pass through buildings, living things, and other materials. That said, there is still a fair amount of uncertainty in the exact cause of lymphoma in dogs.
What Are The Most Effective Treatment Options for Dogs with Lymphoma?
Unfortunately, treatment options are limited. The main go-to for treatment is chemotherapy. The reason for this is because surgery usually can’t stop or treat the cancer.
Chemotherapy treatments may be an option in cases where surgery or radiation are ruled out. In cases where the dog isn’t a good candidate for any of these treatments, he/she may be given prednisone for palliative care.
Prednisone provides relief from bodily inflammation. It doesn’t treat the cancer in any way. However, it can buy your dog a little time while providing some relief.
The veterinarian may prescribe medication for pain management.
When To Euthanize a Dog With Lymphoma
The decision to euthanize your dog is heartbreaking and likely the most difficult decision you’ll have to make. It’s hard to know when the right time is. An important consideration is the dog’s quality of life. Is he suffering? Can he still enjoy some of the things he used to?
The hard fact is that a dog with lymphoma may need to be put down when they are not getting any relief from treatments. If they are in pain and have no appetite, it may be a sign.
Pet parents have a hard time deciding when or if to euthanize. It’s understandably a very difficult decision to make. If you’re struggling with this decision, you may want to speak to an objective third-party.
The veterinarian is the perfect person to discuss these options with. They can offer medical advice that comes from a scientific background. Of course, veterinarians have a heart too. They will, however, be able to offer guidance in the best time to take that step.
The Euthanasia Procedure
Deciding to put down your dog is the most gut-wrenching decision. It’s the hardest thing to to, but at the end of the day, it’s truly in the best interest of your dog. The last thing pet parents want is to see their dog suffering in severe pain.
When treatment isn’t working and your dog is getting weaker by the day, it’s probably time to make the call.
In Home or at the Veterinary Clinic
These days, many veterinarians or veterinarian technicians will go to your home to perform the procedure. This allows your dog (and your family) the comfort of home without being surrounded by the sterile environment of a clinic.
End of life care (palliative care) may be a consideration for your dog. The goal is to make your dog as comfortable as possible during the final days or weeks. It’s not a place that you put your dog. Instead, it’s a philosophy on how to add dignity to the natural process of dying.
Hospice care may be an option if you prefer your dog to pass through a natural death instead of euthanasia. In the beginning, it may seem like a good option to keep your beloved dog around a little bit longer.
It’s important, however, to have the support of your veterinarian. It will be completely up to you to make sure your pet is comfortable right up to the point of death. It’s not necessarily any easier than euthanasia, but it may be right for your family.
It’s important to discuss the pros and cons with a veterinarian.
What Happens When a Dog is Euthanized?
People have a lot of misconceptions about those final moments. Yes, it’s gut-wrenching and sad. There’s no way around it. However, please be comforted by the fact that this is a humane, pain-free experience for your dog.
The first step in the process will be the administrative of a sedative. Your dog will have no awareness of what is happening and the sedative will greatly increase his/her relaxation.
The veterinarian or technician will administer an injection of sodium pentobarbital. This anesthetic drug quickly relaxes and releases your dog. Your dog will lose consciousness very quickly and the heart will stop beating.
It is completely painless and peaceful. The veterinarian will confirm the time of death and, out of respect, will allow you some final moments with your dog.
It’s Okay to Grieve
Grieving is a natural part of the healing process. It’s going to be painful for you and your family. As time goes on, you will gradually begin to feel better. Suddenly you’ll begin to remember the good times and the happy memories you have.
Gone But Not Forgotten
People have different ways of grieving. Some take comfort in having a small urn with their dog’s ashes nearby. Others prefer to have photographs around. Some people may even be triggered by the sight of the urn and find it too painful to have around.
Your grief is your journey. Nobody can dictate it. Nobody can tell you how long it will last. Yes, your memories will be there forever. There will always be that empty spot in your heart. However, it is much less painful over time.
Let Go of Guilt
I knew an elderly man who had to have his senior dog euthanized. It was time. Still, the man was overcome with guilt. He ran from the clinic, unable to be there when his dog passed. He had nightmares about it and closed his heart to having any other pets.
Over time, he felt better. His nightmares passed, but he’s never forgotten the love of his dog. The sad thing is the guilt that he carried. Euthanizing a dog with a terminal illness is an act of love!
Allowing a dog like that to die a natural death would be painful for the dog. It would be a horrible way to remember your dog.
If you are suffering from guilt, depression, anxiety, or any other mental anguish, it’s okay to get help. The following resources have been chosen for you:
Pet Loss Support – Small Animal Hospital College of Veterinary Medicine
Peace to You and Your Family
Please know how much I feel for you. If you are in the midst of making this difficult decision, I hope you are surrounded by friends and family who love you.
Remember, the decision to euthanize a dog with a terminal illness is the humane thing to do, especially if the alternative for your dog are last days filled with pain.
Your love will always be with your dog and your dog’s love will always be with you.
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