Understanding Pancreatic Cancer in Dogs

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Pancreatic cancer, although admittedly rare in canines, can be quite aggressive and fairly destructive for dogs. Many pancreatic tumors are in their advanced stages before your dog will begin showing any symptoms whatsoever, so it is extremely important to catch your dog’s symptoms as quickly as possible and take him to a professional. If you pay attention to these symptoms, you will have a better chance of treating the cancer moving forward.

Types of Pancreatic Tumors in Dogs

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There are two main types of pancreatic tumors in dogs—insulinomas and adenocarcinomas. One affects the pancreas’ exocrine cells that produce enzymes, and one affects the endocrine cells which produce insulin. Both types of cancer typically originate in the pancreas and are typically malignant.

Insulinomas create an excessive secretion of insulin in the pancreas, which leads the dog’s body to become low in glucose or blood sugar—a condition we refer to as hypoglycemia. This can also mimic the symptoms of diabetes in dogs. Adenocarcinomas are both more common and more aggressive than insulinomas. They affect cells that secrete enzymes, and rapidly metastasize to other parts of the body.

Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer in Dogs

These are common symptoms of insulinomas or adenocarcinomas, but may also be symptomatic of something else serious going on with your pet. Bring your canine to a vet immediately if you notice any of the canine cancer symptoms listed below.

  • Lethargy
  • Confusion
  • Tremors or walking unsteadily
  • Seizures or convulsions
  • Unconsciousness, or passing out due to low blood sugar
  • Abdominal mass that you can see or feel
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Jaundice or yellowing, usually associated with liver disease

Some forms of pancreatic cancer can have intermittent symptoms, so the symptoms will go away for a while, only to return again later. If you see any repetitive symptoms over a period of time, consult with a veterinary professional immediately.

Diagnosis of Pancreatic Cancer in Dogs

Your vet will likely try to see if he or she can feel a protruding mass in the abdomen, which can be a symptom of adenocarcinomas in the pancreas. Insulin and blood sugar tests can lead to a preliminary diagnosis of insulinoma.

Tumors are confirmed either by X-ray or an ultrasound, and it is important that your doctor see where the tumors may have spread at this point, as many pancreatic cancers do spread by the time symptoms occur. Your vet may take a biopsy of the cancer cells as well, which is used to determine whether or not the tumors are malignant.

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Treatment for Pancreatic Cancer in Dogs

The treatment options for pancreatic cancer in dogs are unfortunately quite limited. Pancreatic cancers usually do not show symptoms until they are in the advanced stages, so it is often too late to operate and remove the tumors completely.

The functionality of the pancreas also makes it difficult to remove the entire cancer in many cases, so often times the cancer will regrow after surgery. Many pancreatic cancers will have spread or metastasized by the time any visible symptoms appear, making surgical removal a very difficult process.

Chemotherapy and radiation are sometimes used in conjunction with surgery, or on their own, to reduce the tumor size or prevent tumors from growing back after surgery. The best possible chance for treating pancreatic cancers is in cases where it has been caught early and can be removed in a single operation.

After surgery, your dog will likely need to be on a specialized diet and medications for the rest of his life to avoid the cancer returning. Unfortunately, pancreatic cancers can be very painful to the dogs, so you are encouraged to make them as comfortable as possible to avoid any unnecessary pain.

As with any type of medical condition, all pancreatic cancers will affect your dog differently than any other dog. Your course of care and diagnosis may be slightly different than that described above, but your veterinary oncologists will help you develop the best plan of action for your dog if pancreatic tumors are discovered.

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