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Senior dogs and determination

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May is Pet Cancer Awareness Month. Since 2005, this month is dedicated to raising awareness and combating this horrible disease. As part of my column this month, I wanted to capture another unique cancer success story from Catskill Veterinary Services.

As dogs age, cancer becomes one of the most commonly diagnosed conditions we see. One of those cancers is called hemangiosarcoma, a malignant blood vessel tumor, often associated with the spleen, the heart and, in some cases, the liver. In many cases, a patient may not show any symptoms indicating the presence of a tumor to their owner or veterinarian.

Hemangiosarcomas are classified as vascular tumors of the viscera: tumors that arise from the blood vessels and find homes associated with internal organs. Not all tumors of the intestinal tract are malignant. Hematomas can also be present, and these are benign tumors. Both types of tumors are difficult to detect without advanced diagnostic imaging like x-rays or ultrasounds. Sometimes your veterinarian may be able to detect subtle abnormalities when they feel your pet’s abdomen during their annual physical examination. Unfortunately, in many cases, these masses are discovered when a pet is suddenly acting “off.” Typically, owners notice that the dog does not want to go for a walk or play with their favorite toy. After closer questioning, folks may recall that the pet had fallen or tripped in the past week and it took them a little time to get to their feet. That loss of balance is often a result of a mass rupturing and a severe, sudden loss of blood. The reason pets fall to the ground is because of the dizziness that comes from the sudden drop in their blood pressure.

In September, one of my long-term patients, Bernie, was brought in for an examination and some routine blood work. After some further testing, Bernie was diagnosed with a tumor of his spleen. Weighing the pros and cons, Bernie’s owners elected to move forward with surgery to remove Bernie’s spleen. Biopsy results concluded that Bernie was diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma. Typically, after diagnosing a patient with hemangiosarcoma, their life expectancy averages three months without chemotherapy. Bernie’s owners had elected to pursue chemotherapy but, unfortunately, after some additional testing, his heart developed some issues, and he became unable to handle chemotherapy. Bernie’s owners were devastated, but continued to keep him as comfortable as possible given his will to live.

Bernie’s family prepared for the short time they have left. They elected to take Bernie on what would have been his last family trip and last holiday season. However, eight months later, Bernie is still with his family and enjoying his life. What is the secret to Bernie’s success? His family has been quite dedicated to Bernie and have him on several supplements and a high protein diet.

It is very important to closely monitor your senior dogs for even the slightest changes, like an increased breathing rate or if they seem easily winded. If you have any concerns, the sooner you have your pet evaluated the better. An ultrasound is a quick evaluation of the abdomen to search for any obvious masses, tumors, or the potential for free fluid, like blood. If you have an older dog, yearly brief ultrasounds may be very helpful in early detection of disease. This way, you and your family veterinarian can formulate a plan to address the development of masses before they become life threatening.

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