Bladder Cancer in Dogs: Recognizing The Signs and Symptoms

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While bladder cancer is rarely seen in dogs, it’s important as pet parents to know and recognize the symptoms in the event your dog suffers from this illness and related conditions. Due to the nature of the disease, canine bladder cancer doesn’t always display a lot of warning signs; however, if you are aware of certain abnormalities, you can take a proactive approach in your dog’s health and schedule a veterinary visit for a proper diagnosis.

This article will explore the signs, symptoms, prognosis and treatment, as well as what to expect during your trip to the vet.

What Is Canine Bladder Cancer?

Canine bladder cancer by definition is a tumor of the cells lining the organ that collects urine (i.e., the bladder) excreted by the kidneys. As mentioned, despite the rare occurrence of bladder cancer in dogs, the most common type of canine bladder cancer is known as transitional cell carcinoma (TCC).

A malignant and aggressive form of bladder cancer, it frequently attacks the surrounding urethra and/or ureters, causing an obstruction within the urinary tract and resulting in the disruption of regular urine flow. Approximately 20% of canines with bladder cancer have metastases at the time of diagnosis.

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Although TCC most frequently metastasizes to local/regional lymph nodes, it may also spread to any internal organ system via the bloodstream. It should also be noted that while bladder cancer is far more common in dogs than cats, TCC accounts for less than 1% of all reported cancers found in dogs.

Other less common forms of canine bladder cancer include fibromas, adenocarcinomas, squamous cell carcinomas, and other soft-tissue tumors. Over a period of time, the malignant (cancerous) tumor grows, causing urinary obstruction, and then spreads to other areas of the body, including the lymph nodes, bones and lungs.

Symptoms of Bladder Cancer In Dogs: What To Look For

As in the case with any clinical illness, there are certain symptoms to be aware of if you suspect your dog may be suffering from bladder cancer. In addition, it’s important to know the difference between the signs of bladder cancer and such ailments as urinary tract infections (UTIs) or urinary tract stones, which may display similar symptoms.

While the presence of symptoms may be similar to those seen in UTIs or urinary tract stones (which can be treated with antibiotics and dietary changes), bladder cancer is obviously much more serious in nature and requires specific treatment. It’s therefore very important to see your veterinarian right away at the onset of any of these warning signs.

Signs of canine bladder cancer include:

  • Frequent and urgent need to urinate with little to no urine passing
  • Painful/bloody urination
  • Straining during urination
  • Urinary incontinence
  • Cystitis (inflammation of the bladder)
  • Breathing problems
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Coughing
  • Poor appetite
  • Reluctant to go for a walk or exercise
  • In the case of TCC (transitional cell carcinoma), specific symptoms to look for include urinary incontinence, inability to urinate/difficult urination, and blood in the urine

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Causes of Canine Bladder Cancer

Although the exact causes of cancer manifestation remain unknown, the disease may be attributed to a variety of environmental and genetic factors. From an environmental standpoint, exposure to second-hand smoke has been linked to bladder cancer dogs. In addition, there are a number of carcinogenic chemicals that may increase your dog’s risk of bladder cancer, including certain types of flea dips, pesticides and insecticides.

Furthermore, there are certain dog breeds who have a higher incidence of bladder cancer, (specifically TCC) including Beagles, Scottish Terriers, West Highland White Terriers, Shetland Sheepdogs, and Wirehair Fox Terriers, as well as obese dogs. In addition, middle-aged and elderly female dogs are most commonly affected by the disease.

While pet owners cannot exercise preventative measures when it comes to genetics or breed, you can practice certain safety precautions to protect your four-legged friends, including using natural insecticides in your yard, avoiding over-the-counter flea dips and shampoos, and not smoking in your home.

Diagnosing Bladder Cancer in Your Dog

In order to differentiate bladder cancer from other possible causes of urinary tract inflammation in your pooch, your vet will need to run a series of tests. These may include X-rays, urine analysis, CBC/chemistry blood tests, and ultrasound imaging to help pinpoint the possible causes of clinical signs.

Recent advancements in medical technology, including a urine bladder tumor antigen test, may be implemented to diagnose bladder cancer. In the instance that the test results are positive, your vet will run additional tissue biopsy tests and ultrasounds to arrive at a definitive diagnosis, as well as an appropriate form of therapy.

Throughout the course of treatment, your vet may need to repeat such diagnostic tests in order to see if the therapy has been effective or needs to be adjusted. Below, a general summary of tests, diagnostics and treatments your vet may implement:

  • X-rays, blood work, urine testing and ultrasounds are frequently required to differentiate bladder cancer from UTIs, bladder stones and other causes of bladder inflammation.
  • Your vet may run antigen tests initially to diagnose signs of bladder cancer; however, a biopsy is required for a definitive diagnosis.
  • Certain types of medication (possibly in combination with chemotherapy) may offer a chance at prolonging your dog’s life – your vet will discuss your options during your visit.
  • In the instance of TCC (transitional cell carcinoma), your vet may utilize a combination of tests, including a urinalysis, urine sediment cytology, ultrasound of the bladder/urethra, a bladder tumor antigen testing on a urine sample, and a biopsy of the affected area.

Treatment & Prognosis for Canine Bladder Cancer

Because bladder cancer in dogs grows at a rapid pace and is often at an advanced stage by the time of diagnosis, it’s rarely possible to conduct a complete surgical removal of the malignant mass. Here is a general outline of treatment options your veterinarian may propose during your consultation:

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Surgery: Due to the location of the tumor growth (typically where the ureters and urethra enter the bladder), surgical removal of the entire tumor is usually impossible, as it would disrupt these vital structures.

On some occasions the tumor may develop elsewhere in the bladder, in which case it may be removed either partially or in its entirety. In the instances where it is only partially removed, it is known as ‘debulking’; while it may provide temporary relief of symptoms, the tumor will regrow.

Chemotherapy: Although chemo treatments for other types of canine cancer have been proven effective, there is unfortunately no known type of chemotherapy treatment that works for bladder cancers in pets. However, your vet may prescribe a combination of oral-inflammatory medication along with chemotherapy treatments, as it has shown to be effective in some dogs.

Radiation therapy: In many case studies, dogs suffering from bladder cancer have been responsive to radiation therapy. While research has shown that it has been more effective than chemotherapy treatments, it can result in serious side effects. Therefore, it is important to discuss your options with your vet carefully to see if your dog is an appropriate candidate for such treatment.

Cryotherapy: This form of therapy is a technique that uses an extremely cold liquid or instrument to freeze and destroy abnormal skin cells (or in this case cancerous tissues) that require removal.

Hyperthermy: Hyperthermy is used to treat cancer with heated probes; essentially, it heats the cancerous tissues to destroy them. However, it is not always possible to find veterinary surgeons that perform this highly-specialized form of surgical intervention.

Diet: Your dog’s diet always plays a crucial part in his health; however, in the case of dogs suffering from canine cancer, his diet can play a significant role in his quality of life. In fact, research shows that a diet free of simple sugars and low in moderate sugars (carbohydrates) is optimal for dogs diagnosed with cancer.

Easily-digested proteins should also be limited, and your dog’s diet should also include a set amount of healthy fats. Therefore, it crucial to speak with your vet and determine a cancer diet to ensure your dog’s optimal health and quality of life.

Due to the expense of bladder cancer surgery and consequent difficulties it may impose to many pet owners, looking into clinical trials may be a worthy option, as there are a number of veterinary institutions that offer these services. Your vet can help you locate such institutions, as well as determine if your dog is eligible for such trials.

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Stages of Bladder Cancer in Dogs

For dogs diagnosed with bladder cancer, their prognosis is listed as being in stages 0 to 4. Stage 0-1 indicates a tumor just starting out; they’re small and typically symptoms are not yet present to indicate a problem. Although it is obviously best to catch the cancer at this early stage, it is often difficult because there aren’t any visible signs.

In stages 2-3, the canine cancer has metastasized and is invading much of the bladder. It is at this phase when most dogs will experience difficulty in urination. Keeping this information in mind, it’s important to speak to your vet and determine the best treatment protocols for your beloved furry friend to ensure the highest quality of life.

In addition to medication and other forms of therapy, you may wish to discuss a dietary regiment, as well as possible natural dog supplements to support his immune system and overall health.

In stage 4 of canine bladder cancer, the tumor has begun to attack other vital organs and areas of the body. Unfortunately, it is most difficult to treat cancer at this phase, and euthanasia may be the most humane course of action. Once a dog has been diagnosed in the advances stages of bladder cancer, life expectancy is typically less than a year and his quality of life will greatly decline.

Treating Bladder Cancer in Dogs

Up until recently, euthanasia was commonly recommended as the most humane approach, as dogs diagnosed with bladder cancer had a very small survival rate. However, life expectancies can vary a great deal, depending on a) how early the cancer is diagnosed, b) how far the cancer has progressed, and c) what treatments are prescribed.

If the tumor has not spread to other areas of the body, your vet may recommend tumor removal depending on its location and your dog’s overall health and other underlying conditions. Although radiation has been proven an effective treatment in slowing tumor growth, there are a number of side-effects.

On the other hand, chemotherapy isn’t always the most effective method of treatment, as we have previously discussed. Therefore, your vet will prescribe a course of treatment tailored specifically to your dog’s condition.

Prognosis of Canine Bladder Cancer

For dogs diagnosed with bladder cancer, the long-term prognosis is generally serious regardless of therapeutic treatments. However, you can prolong your dog’s lifespan and overall quality of life through proper medical treatment. Statistics show that dogs with TCC live 4-6 months without treatment, while those who receive treatment can live up to 6-12 months after initial diagnosis.

Your pet’s survival rate is also affected by the growth rate of his tumor, as well as its location within the bladder wall. Additionally, dogs with localized disease within the wall of the bladder have a better prognosis for palliative care than dogs with cancer that has spread to the lungs, bones, lymph nodes or prostate.

As a pet parent, your main objective will be to make your four-legged friend as comfortable as possible, while protecting him from secondary side-effects and infection. Dogs with bladder cancer are especially susceptible to bacterial infections. Therefore, it’s important to follow up with your veterinarian during treatment once he has been diagnosed.

Your vet may need to administer certain tests and medications, such as urine analysis, bacterial cultures and even oral antibiotics, particularly if his or her clinical signs suddenly worsen. No matter what type of cancer your dog is faced with, it’s important to seek medical guidance right away to discuss the best options for your beloved pet while ensuring proper treatment in its earliest stages.

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