Leukemia in Dogs: Signs & Symptoms

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Leukemia occurs in dogs in two main forms: chronic leukemia and acute leukemia. Both are fairly treatable, but neither is curable unfortunately. As with all canine cancers, the key to helping your dog live with leukemia is catching it early. Below is a list of common symptoms to look out for, as well as some information on the diagnosis and treatment options for both acute and chronic leukemia in dogs.

Acute vs. Chronic Leukemia in Dogs

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Acute leukemia occurs when leukocytes, or bad blood cells, are reproducing rapidly and leukemia progresses very quickly. Your dog’s red and white blood cell counts will be lower than they need to be to fight off diseases and function at 100%. Chronic leukemia, on the other hand, occurs and progresses more slowly over time.

Acute leukemia is more common in middle-aged dogs around 5-6 years old, whereas chronic leukemia is more common in older dogs. Both types of leukemia can cause a weakened immune system, due to lower white blood cell count, which may lead to contraction of other diseases or illnesses more easily. Because of this, many dogs that have leukemia have more generic symptoms and are not immediately diagnosed as they may have contracted something else in addition to the cancer.

In addition, leukemia cells typically spread to other organs through the blood, most often the kidneys or liver, so symptoms of kidney or liver problems could be a sign of leukemia in dogs. Radiation and other chemicals have been suggested as causes of leukemia, but no reputable studies have corroborated this as yet.

Symptoms of Leukemia in Dogs

As mentioned above, it can be tough to notice symptoms specific to leukemia, as the cancer affects the immune system and internal organs most obviously. Take your dog to the vet if you notice any of the following issues, or any general illnesses within your dog.

  • General symptoms (lethargy, loss of appetite, pain)
  • Purple or red spots on the skin or gums from hemorrhages beneath the skin
  • Additional symptoms based on organs in the body that have been affected

Diagnosis of Leukemia in Dogs

The most common diagnosis of leukemia comes from an irregular blood sample, in which the white blood cell or red blood cell counts (or both) seem off. Most leukemic patients are diagnosed this way, often by accident during a routine blood test.

A true diagnosis occurs after your vet conducts a biopsy or bone marrow aspiration. These can be painful for the dog, and typically require anesthesia for comfort and to prevent the dog from moving during the procedure.

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Treatment of Canine Leukemia

The prognosis for acute leukemia is typically worse than that of chronic leukemia, as the cancer cells are growing and spreading much faster. Though it cannot be fully cured, many cases of leukemia can be managed and lived with. As with all cancers, your case will be unique to your dog and his body, so consult a veterinary oncologist for a complete course of treatment for your dog’s leukemia.

Acute leukemia treatment typically involves IV fluids, antibiotics, and sometimes blood transfusions. Many dogs will also need a chemotherapy treatment that you can administer at home. Chemotherapy will also be used for chronic leukemia patients. These patients will undergo careful monitoring of their blood counts through regular vet visits.

All dogs with leukemia will have a compromised immune system, so it is advised to keep them away from other dogs as much as possible, to avoid contracting any additional illnesses.

Though leukemia can cause your dog to contract other illnesses and weaken his or her immune system, it can also be treated to alleviate much of the stress associated with the cancer. Dogs with leukemia can still have a high quality of life and remain comfortable for the rest of their time with your family.

Chronic leukemia cases have been reported with lifespans of up to 6 years following diagnosis. Talk to your vet if you have any concerns that your dog may have leukemia, and remember to always request a blood test in order to catch this cancer as early as possible!

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