Symptoms of Cancer in Dogs & Cats in Annapolis, Columbia & Towson, MD

Common Signs of Cancer in Pets

Common Signs of Cancer in Pets: A Great Dane Looks Outside Through a Window

Treating cancer in pets is a large part of what we do here at AVIM&O. An estimated 4 million dogs and cats will develop cancer each year. As dogs get older, their risk of cancer increases. Almost half of dogs over the age of 10 will develop cancer, while there is less information regarding the cancer rate in cats. Still, we do know that cancer is the leading cause of death in 47% of dogs and 32% of cats.

A Morris Animal Foundation study found that 41% of animal owners feel that cancer is the biggest health concern for their pet. It is very difficult to detect cancer early in pets, and unfortunately in most cases, cancer cannot be detected with routine blood work.

However, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, there are 10 things you can look for. These signs are not definitive for a cancer diagnosis, but they may be able to detect another medical condition early that might require additional veterinary attention and/or treatment. Early detection is key when dealing with cancer, so learn to spot the signs discussed here:

  • Abdominal swelling. This can be a slow or quick onset and it is important to see your veterinarian to try and determine a cause. The work up for this usually starts with blood work, a urine sample, and an abdominal ultrasound.
  • Bleeding from the mouth, nose, or other parts of the body. Melanoma is the most common oral tumor in dogs, and squamous cell carcinoma is the most common oral tumor in cats. Seeing your local veterinarian twice a year for routine examinations can help to identify these tumors sooner. Early detection of these tumors has shown to result in an improved outcome. So if you notice your pet has blood-tinged saliva, is eating slower, has colored discharge from the nose or bleeding from any other areas of the body, the best thing is to have them evaluated by your veterinarian. In most cases some additional testing will be recommended to try and determine a cause and diagnosis.
  • Difficulty breathing. Any time there is a concern that your pet is having difficulty breathing, they should be evaluated immediately either at your local veterinarian or the closest emergency clinic. Evaluation with blood work and radiographs of the chest will likely be recommended as a starting point to try and determine a cause.
  • Difficulty eating or swallowing. This could be a sign of dental disease or something more serious and warrants a visit to your local veterinarian for further evaluation.
  • Lumps, bumps or discolored skin. Any new mass found on your pet should be aspirated by your local veterinarian to determine whether additional steps should be pursued. After the aspirate, a next step may include taking a small biopsy sample (called an incisional biopsy) to gain a better understanding of the mass vs. complete excision if the aspiration reveals that the mass is a concern. As dogs get older they can develop new masses like lipomas (fatty masses), which are benign. Any new masses should be evaluated so your local veterinarian can help guide you towards the best treatment options available. In some cases, monitoring may be the best treatment option, but only after you determine what the condition is.
  • Non-healing wounds. Most cuts and scrapes will heal on their own. Unfortunately, if your pet has a sore that is not improving after a few days to a week, they should be seen by your local veterinarian. Cancer is able to do a lot of things, but it cannot heal and usually continues to grow. Getting to a malignant tumor sooner allows the doctor to provide more treatment options and improve the outcome for most pets.
  • Persistent diarrhea or vomiting. Dehydration can occur quickly, even if your pet is still drinking. If they have had more than 3-4 vomiting episodes in a day or more than 36 hours of diarrhea, then they should be seen by your local veterinarian. The sooner they are seen the lower the chances are that they will require hospitalization. Tests that will be recommended usually include: blood work, analysis of urine, X-rays, and possible ultrasound. There are many benign causes of vomiting and/or diarrhea, but cancer is always a concern and should be ruled out as a possible cause.
  • Sudden or chronic changes in weight. If you notice that your pet has had an unexplained drop in their weight, they should see their veterinarian immediately. Weight loss is sometimes one of the first indicators of a cancer diagnosis. The first steps are very similar to what has already been stated and usually include blood work, a urine sample, radiographs and/or an abdominal ultrasound.
  • Unexplained swelling, heat, pain or lameness. There are a lot of different causes for these signs in dogs and cats. Any persistent swelling, pain or lameness that does not improve with supportive care should be investigated further. In dogs, a bone tumor called osteosarcoma can cause a firm swelling in either their front or back legs, but rarely in other bones in the body. Most of these dogs will improve initially with pain medications and anti-inflammatories, but it never completely resolves and the swelling remains. If this is the case, then along with initial diagnostics (i.e. blood work and a urine sample), radiographs of the affected limb are recommended. If there are changes noted in the bone, the next steps usually include chest radiographs and either an aspirate and/or biopsy with culture of the concerning area in the bone to try and arrive at a diagnosis.
  • Visible mass/tumor. As stated above under lumps, bumps or discolored skin, any new mass should be evaluated with aspiration. Based on the aspirate results, further recommendations can be made.

If your pet is diagnosed with cancer, the next step is being referred to an oncologist where they will discuss your pet’s prognosis and treatment options with you. Fortunately, dogs and cats tolerate most cancer treatments very well. The goal with any cancer treatment is to ensure that your pet maintains a good quality of life before, during, and after treatment. However, in many instances a cure is not possible. In these cases, our goal is to achieve a good quality of life for your pet for as long as possible. We believe quantity of life is meaningless without quality. It is also important to realize that you know your pet best, and the criteria for determining one animal’s quality of life may not suit another. Being armed with the correct information allows you to be the best advocate for your pet.

Feline Mammary Gland Adenocarcinoma

Feline mammary gland tumors are the 3rd most common feline tumor and are most commonly diagnosed in middle-aged to older cats.  Incidence of mammary tumors is dependent on when cats are spayed. Cats who are spayed prior to 6 months of age have a 91% reduced risk of developing mammary cancer. Spaying after 2 years does not decrease the risk of developing mammary tumors.

Unfortunately, the majority (80-90%) of mammary gland tumors in cats are malignant, and 80-90% will metastasize (spread to other areas of the body) during the course of disease. The most common sites of metastasis include the regional lymph nodes and lungs. Due to the risk for metastasis associated with mammary tumors, thorough staging is recommended prior to any definitive treatment. This would include bloodwork (complete blood count and chemistry panel), urinalysis, aspiration of the regional lymph nodes, chest radiographs and an abdominal ultrasound. Prognosis for patients is dependent on the stage of disease. Stage is based on the size of the tumor (tumors less than 2cm have a better prognosis) and evidence of metastasis (patients that have metastasis typically experience a shorter survival time than those without). Another important factor is whether there is any evidence of invasion into the blood vessels or lymphatics which is determined from the biopsy (cats that do not have any invasion have a better prognosis than those that do).

Size of Tumor
Lymph Node
Stage I <2cm No No
Stage II 2-3cm No No
Stage III >3cm Yes No
Stage IV Any size Yes Yes

Treatment options include surgery, chemotherapy and supportive care. When possible, surgery is the recommended first step. Local tumor recurrence is common if the tumor is incomplete or narrowly excised, so wide surgical margins (2-3cms and one tissue plane deep) are recommended. This may mean that several mammary glands are removed at one time (known as a chain mastectomy).

Since most of these tumors will metastasize, chemotherapy may be discussed to address the risk of the tumor spreading. The most commonly used chemotherapy agents include doxorubicin (Adriamycin) and carboplatin. Both of these chemotherapy agents are administered intravenously once every three weeks for a total of four to six treatments when combined with surgery. In some situations, chemotherapy may be used without surgery, but the long term prognosis is not as good when surgery is not performed. Side effects of chemotherapy are typically mild and resolve on their own within 1-2 days. Chemotherapy side effects may include lethargy, poor appetite/anorexia, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and a decreased white blood cell count. Doxorubicin can also cause dose cumulative damage to the kidneys, so bloodwork is performed at each visit to ensure that it is safe to continue with chemotherapy.

Supportive care may include pain medications, anti-inflammatories and antibiotics as needed. This can be used with or without other treatment options.

Mammary gland cancer is not usually a cancer that is curable, but with treatment, can be controlled while maintaining your pet’s good quality of life. Your oncologist will be able to discuss the treatment options, prognosis and help guide you as to the most appropriate plan for your beloved family member. Call us today in Annapolis at (410) 224-0121, Towson at (410) 828-0911 or Columbia at (410) 441-3304.

Lymphoma in Dogs in Annapolis, Columbia & Towson

Canine Lymphoma in Annapolis: A Basset Hound Running Through Grass

Managing Canine Lymphoma in Annapolis Area Pets

Lymphoma in dogs is one of the most common canine cancers our animal hospital diagnoses. Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphocytes, which are a type of white blood cell and a part of the immune system. The function of lymphocytes is to help fight infection, and they can be found in almost any organ in the body, with the most common locations being the lymph nodes, spleen, and bone marrow. When a lymphocyte undergoes a mutation, it grows and multiplies uncontrollably and can cause the lymph nodes, spleen, or any other organ in which it is found to enlarge.

What are the Most Common forms of Canine Lymphoma?

There are several forms of lymphoma, with the most common being multicentric lymphoma. This form of lymphoma is represented by enlargement of the lymph nodes on the outside and inside of the body. Other forms of lymphoma include mediastinal (enlarged lymph node in the chest), cutaneous (skin), extranodal (bone, eyes, liver) and gastrointestinal (also called alimentary lymphoma). Multicentric lymphoma is by far the most common and comprises around 80% of diagnosed canine lymphomas, while the other forms of lymphoma represent about 5% each.

Unfortunately at this time, the cause for lymphoma is unknown but believed to be multifactorial.

The Clinical Signs of Canine Lymphoma

Our veterinarian specialists often observe these symptoms in patients that may be suffering from lymphoma:

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  • Enlarged lymph nodes. The ones that are usually felt first are the mandibular lymph nodes, located under the jaw.
  • Decreased appetite and/or energy level.
  • Coughing or hacking. This is most commonly seen after a patient gets up from sleeping, while eating or drinking, during exercise, or when getting excited. The cough or hack is usually non-productive.
  • Increased drinking and urination.
  • Swelling of the face or limbs (known as pitting edema). This occurs when the lymph nodes compress the vessels that normally drain fluid from the limbs or head.
  • Dry, flaking skin or ulcerative skin lesions with the cutaneous form of lymphoma. Cutaneous lymphoma can also cause red lesions in the mouth or loss of pigmentation around the eyes, nose, and lips.
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhea can be seen with gastrointestinal or multicentric lymphoma.
  • Difficulty breathing. This can be seen with the mediastinal form due to an enlarged lymph node or from fluid accumulating in the chest (known as pleural effusion).

Diagnosing Your Pet

The gold standard for diagnosing multicentric lymphoma at our animal hospital is performing a biopsy of the lymph node. The larger the biopsy sample, the more likely we are to obtain a definitive diagnosis, and anesthesia is required to obtain a biopsy sample. For cutaneous lymphoma, a biopsy is also needed to make a diagnosis. An alternative, less invasive option is starting with a needle aspirate of the lymph node (or other affected organ). Unfortunately, a needle aspirate may not always be able to diagnose lymphoma, so a biopsy or additional testing on the aspirate sample may be warranted.

Determining the Stage of the Disease

Once we have obtained a diagnosis, staging tests may be recommended to determine the extent (stage) of disease as well as to ensure that there are no other concerns that could impact the treatment recommendations.

The Five Stages of Canine Lymphoma

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  • Stage I: One lymph node affected
  • Stage II: Lymph nodes enlarged either in front of the diaphragm or behind it (front or back half of the body)
  • Stage III: Lymph nodes enlarged on both sides of the diaphragm
  • Stage IV: Liver and/or spleen involved
  • Stage V: Bone marrow, eyes, intestines, skin, lungs (anywhere outside of the lymph nodes, liver and spleen) affected.

Staging Tests

  • Bloodwork with a complete blood count (CBC) and chemistry panel
  • Urinalysis (with possible culture)
  • Chest radiographs
  • Abdominal radiographs vs abdominal ultrasound
  • Typing the lymphoma:
  • There are two different forms of lymphoma; B cell and T cell. B cell comprises 70-80% of diagnosed lymphoma cases, while T cell represents 20-30%. Dogs with B cell lymphoma, on average, have a longer median survival time compared to dogs with T cell lymphoma.
  • Typing of lymphoma can be done on a lymph node biopsy, lymph node aspirate or blood (if there are abnormal lymphocytes in circulation).
  • The tests that can type lymphoma are: flow cytometry, PARR (PCR for antigen receptor rearrangement) and immunohistochemistry.
  • Bone marrow aspiration

Prognostic Factors

There are a few factors regarding lymphoma, which can decrease a patient’s response as well as their median survival time (negative prognostic indicators). These include:

  • Stage V lymphoma
  • Substage b. This is when a patient is symptomatic for their lymphoma. It can include a decreased appetite, lethargy, vomiting and/or diarrhea.
  • Substage a is when a patient is behaving normally
  • Elevated calcium level (known as hypercalcemia)
  • T cell lymphoma
  • Prior use of long term prednisone as this can induce a resistance to some of the chemotherapy agents

Treatment for Canine Lymphoma

Canine Lymphoma in Annapolis: A Bulldog Standing in the Grass

The most effective therapy for most types of lymphoma is chemotherapy. There are many different chemotherapy protocols available for dogs with multicentric, cutaneous and gastrointestinal lymphoma. Radiation therapy and/or surgery may also be recommended for certain types of lymphoma.

With any chemotherapy treatment, the goal is to get a patient into a complete or partial remission. Remission is when the cancer burden decreases. If the cancer becomes undetectable, then it would be considered a complete remission, which is the goal for most types of lymphomas. Partial remission means that the cancer has decreased by at least 50%.

Fortunately, most dogs tolerate chemotherapy well with less than 10% of patients needing to come into the hospital for supportive care secondary to chemotherapy side effects. Side effects can include:

  • Thinning of the fur coat. Unlike people, dogs do not usually lose their fur when treated with chemotherapy, although their coat may thin out some. Exceptions include: Poodles, Old English Sheepdogs and some terriers that can lose all of their fur, but almost all dogs with have their hair growth resume once chemotherapy is completed.
  • Stomach upset. This can include a picky appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and lethargy. These side effects most often occur 2-5 days after treatment, but tend to be mild and resolve on their own with some supportive medications at home within 1-2 days.
  • Decrease in white blood cell counts. This is most often seen about a week after treatment. Most dogs are asymptomatic if their blood counts are low and rarely need to be placed on antibiotics or require coming into the hospital for evaluation and treatment.

Any side effects that require a visit to the hospital are considered unacceptable and may result in a reduction in the dose of the chemotherapy agent vs changing to a different chemotherapy protocol vs stopping treatment.

There may also be clinical trials available across the country which are trying to find new ways to treat lymphoma and improve our patients’ prognosis. Owners may want to inquire about this option to see if there are any clinical trials open and if their pet may be a candidate.


One of the most common questions after a patient has been diagnosed with lymphoma is whether or not they can be cured. In very rare instances, dogs are thought to be cured of their lymphoma by chemotherapy. More often, most patients will remain in remission for a certain period of time, then fall out of that remission. This is most often characterized by a recurrence of their original clinical signs. When this is seen, chemotherapy can be reinstituted and a second remission achieved, but it is usually of a shorter duration than the previous one. Eventually, most lymphomas go on to develop a resistance to all of our chemotherapy drugs, and patients must be euthanized due to a declining quality of life.

The prognosis for lymphoma is dependent on the type of lymphoma as well as the chosen chemotherapy protocol. Dogs with B cell multicentric lymphoma treated with a CHOP based protocol have a median survival time of 12-18 months. The term median implies that 50% of dogs will survive beyond this time point. 

The goal with any treatment is to help to improve and maintain a patient’s quality of life. Your oncologist will be able to discuss the treatment options that are available and together you can determine what option is in your pet’s best interest. Call us today in Annapolis at (410) 224-0121, Towson at (410) 828-0911 or Columbia at (410) 441-3304.