What Is Leukemia in Dogs?
Canine leukemia is a type of cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow, the soft inner portion of bones. Bone marrow has the important job of creating white blood cells, those that help the body fight off infection and disease.
Leukemia results when bone marrow makes abnormal white blood cells that do not fully develop or function properly. They eventually begin to outnumber healthy blood cells, accumulate in the bloodstream, lymph nodes, liver, and spleen, and may stop bone marrow from producing healthy blood cells altogether.
Types of Leukemia in Dogs
There are two main types of canine leukemia: chronic and acute.
Chronic leukemia: Chronic leukemia progresses slowly and steadily over time. Abnormal white blood cells in chronic leukemia are almost fully developed and can perform their normal functions, but not as well.
Acute leukemia: Acute leukemia progresses much faster than chronic leukemia. It causes a high production of immature blood cells that cannot function properly. It is typically accompanied by severe symptoms.
Chronic and acute leukemia can be characterized as either myelogenous leukemia (originating in the bone marrow’s myeloid cells) or lymphocytic leukemia (affecting the lymphoid cells), depending on which type of white blood cell is affected. Lymphocytic leukemia is more common than myelogenous leukemia in dogs.
Symptoms of Leukemia in Dogs
Lack of appetite
Increased intake of water
Enlarged abdomen, from enlarged liver and/or spleen
Enlarged lymph nodes
Keep in mind that dogs with chronic leukemia may not show any symptoms because it progresses so slowly.
Causes of Leukemia in Dogs
Canine leukemia has no known direct cause. Rather, a dog’s risk of developing leukemia is determined by a mix of different factors.
Chemical exposure: Some toxins, such as the industrial chemical benzene, have been linked to causing leukemia in humans. This may also be the case for dogs.
Genetics: All blood cells in the body begin as stem cells. The stem cell has a set of instructions on what it should become and how it should function. Sometimes, this set of instructions is damaged and results in the creation of an abnormal blood cell that does not function properly.
Age: Younger dogs are more likely to be diagnosed with acute leukemia than middle-aged and older dogs.
Gender: Gender does not appear to play a role in the risk of developing leukemia in dogs. Both males and females are equally likely to be diagnosed with the disease.
How Veterinarians Diagnose Leukemia in Dogs
A blood test is first performed to determine the relative number of white blood cells in your dog’s body. A high white blood cell count is an indicator that something may be wrong.
Several diseases can cause an abnormally high level of white blood cells. Your veterinarian will do additional tests to rule out other diseases, even if they suspect leukemia. These tests may include a physical examination, examination of the red blood cell count, and taking samples of your dog’s spleen, liver, or bone marrow.
Samples for the determination of leukemia are typically taken from bone marrow using a bone marrow aspirate. A bone marrow aspirate involves the use of a specialized needle to penetrate the bone and collect fluid. Your veterinarian may also do a core biopsy, where a solid piece of bone marrow is collected. Dogs need to be sedated or given light general anesthesia to reduce discomfort during the procedure, and your dog needs to be kept still to ensure a good sample is taken.
These samples are examined under a microscope to determine if cancerous cells are present. This is most often when a diagnosis is made.
Once diagnosed, the presenting symptoms, a dog’s age, and the age of the cancerous blood cells can be used to determine whether the leukemia is chronic or acute.
Many dogs with chronic leukemia are older, do not show any symptoms, and exhibit cancerous white blood cells that are more developed. A diagnosis is typically made during routine blood work.
Dogs with acute leukemia are typically under 6 years of age, show signs of being sick, and have cancerous cells that are less developed. A diagnosis is usually made while seeking treatment for severe symptoms.
Treatment of Leukemia in Dogs
Leukemia in dogs is rarely cured with treatment. Rather, treatment is used to manage symptoms, extend lifespan, and increase a dog’s quality of life. Dogs with chronic leukemia typically respond well to treatment.
Supportive care for your dog may include administering antibiotics, replenishing lost bodily fluids, supplementing your dog’s body with important blood components, and feeding them a well-balanced and healthy diet.
Chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or a combination of both may be used to help slow down the disease. Dogs with acute leukemia have very few treatment options and commonly do not respond well to chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy is typically given by mouth in pill form. More severe cases may require that chemotherapy be delivered through the bloodstream. Some chemotherapy drugs may work better than others, depending on your dog’s specific situation.
Medications that suppress the immune system may be prescribed to minimize negative side effects associated with cancer and cancer treatment. Blood transfusions may be required due to a low number of healthy red blood cells.
Dogs in earlier stages of chronic leukemia may not be given immediate treatment. Close observation and regular veterinary visits will determine when treatment should start as the disease progresses
Recovery and Management of Leukemia in Dogs
Achieving remission, where the signs and symptoms of cancer are reduced or disappear entirely, is extremely rare with leukemia. Disease and symptom management are key for extending the lifespan and quality of life for your dog post-diagnosis.
Pet parents should ensure that their dog is eating a balanced and healthy diet. A multivitamin such as Zesty Paws® 8-in-1 Bites may be helpful if your dog is struggling to retain important nutrients due to their cancer and cancer treatment.
Supplements with scientific evidence of their cancer-fighting abilities, such as omega-3 fatty acids, can be added to help further boost your dog’s diet. Nordic Natural Omega-3 Pet Softgels may be recommended by your veterinarian.
Pet parents should also be prepared to make lifestyle changes. This may include altering daily routines to accommodate a dog’s reduced energy levels, administering scheduled medications, and monitoring overall body condition. Financial planning for the cost of treatment may also result in lifestyle changes.
Always consult with your dog’s veterinarian before making any changes in your dog’s treatment plan. This helps ensure that you’re supporting your dog in the best was possible.
Leukemia in Dogs FAQs
What is the life expectancy of a dog with leukemia?
A dog diagnosed with acute leukemia has a life expectancy of only weeks to months, even with supportive care and treatment. A dog diagnosed with chronic leukemia has a life expectancy of several months to years.
What are the final stages of leukemia in a dog?
The final stages of leukemia are marked by lethargy, labored breathing, limited mobility, severe weight loss, difficulty eating and drinking, and incontinence.
How much does it cost to treat a dog with leukemia?
Diagnosing leukemia in dogs can cost $500 to $2,000. Oral chemotherapy used for leukemia costs about $100 to $350 per treatment, while intravenous chemotherapy costs about $1,000 per treatment. Keep in mind that care and costs will be extensive because leukemia cannot be cured.
How quickly can leukemia develop in dogs?
Chronic leukemia develops over the course of months to years before it is even detected. Acute leukemia progresses very quickly—within weeks to months—and exhibits severe symptoms.
Featured Image: iStock.com/StudioMikara
Chand N, Randhawa CS, Singh RS, Uppal SK, Singh ND, Bansal BK. 2004. Leukemia in Dogs. Indian Veterinary Journal 91(10):112-113.
Lee GW, Kang MH, Jeon JH, Song DW, Ro WB, Kim HS, Park HM. 2022. Case Report: Long-term survival of a dog with chronic lymphocytic leukemia treated with chlorambucil, prednisolone, and Imatinib. Frontiers in Veterinary Science 8:625527.
Workman HC, Vernau W. 2003. Chronic lymphocytic leukemia in dogs and cats: the veterinary perspective. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice 33:1379-1399.
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