One of the toughest parts of working in the ER is the constant barrage of bad news that one has to deliver.  Ever since that dreaded day when the neurologist told me that JP, my own beloved pit bull, had a brain tumor, I’ve come to empathize with how hard it is to hear the "C" word: Cancer.

Unfortunately, aside from trauma and metabolic disease (e.g., organ failure of the kidneys, liver, or heart; immune problems; etc.), cancer is one of the top causes for pets presenting to the ER. In fact, cancer is the leading cause of death in both dogs and cats in the United States.

The most hated type of cancer seen by emergency veterinarians? Hemangiosarcoma. This aggressive "vascular" tumor (meaning it loves bloody organs like the liver, spleen, heart and blood vessels), often results in severe internal bleeding secondary to a ruptured tumor. Clinical signs of internal bleeding include:

  • Acute collapse
  • Pale gums
  • Weakness
  • Vomiting
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Panting excessively
  • Increased thirst
  • Lethargy
  • Inappetance/anorexia
  • Low blood pressure
  • Shock
  • Distended abdomen
  • Acute death

With internal bleeding secondary to hemangiosarcoma, immediate stabilization with IV fluids and blood transfusions is necessary. However, the prognosis — even with surgery and chemotherapy — is quite poor, with the average survival being days to months.

So what can a pet owner do? Pick up on the warning signs of cancer in dogs and cats earlier. Colorado State University Animal Cancer Center, based out of Fort Collins, CO, is renowned for its oncology department. Here are some clues from CSU on signs to watch for:

  1. Abnormal swelling that persists or continue to grow
  2. Sores that do not heal
  3. Weight loss
  4. Loss of appetite
  5. Bleeding or discharge from any opening in the body
  6. Offensive odor (which may be due to a tumor in the nose, mouth, or rectal area)
  7. Difficulty eating or swallowing
  8. Exercise intolerance, hesitation to exercise or loss of stamina
  9. Persistent lameness (which may be due to bone, nerve or muscle cancer)
  10. Difficulty breathing, urinating or defecating

As with any disease, the sooner you or your veterinarian pick it up, the sooner you can diagnose and treat it and the better the potential prognosis. Don’t make the mistake of missing some subtle signs of your pet’s illness. When in doubt, as your pet ages, talk to your veterinarian about skipping the vaccines. Instead, I recommend doing geriatric blood work, X-rays or even ultrasound to diagnose problems sooner.

If your pet was just diagnosed with cancer, don’t beat yourself up. Dogs and cats are so stoic that they often don’t show signs of illness until the disease is quite advanced.

More importantly, keep in mind that everyone has had a different experience with cancer, whether personally, in a family member, in a previous pet, etc. There are lots of factors to consider: the prognosis, your financial limitations and emotional ties, amongst other things.

When in doubt, know that you have lots of options. Whether it’s palliative care, keeping your pet comfortable, consulting with an oncologist (BTW, just because you make an appointment doesn’t commit you to the chemotherapy — but at least you will know your options!), humane euthanasia, or being more aggressive in the reatment of cancer (which may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, etc.). Talk to your veterinarian or a veterinary specialist about the best option for you and your pet.

Dr. Justine Lee

Image: Nagy Melinda / via Shutterstock