Grape Toxicity

Murpy’s owners just thought they were paying another minor installment on their dog tax when they caught him halfway through gulping down the container of table grapes they had just gotten to compliment their lunch that day.  After all, you turn your back for a second and that dog is into everything.  They cleaned up the remains and went about their business.

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As our little goblins and ghouls prepare for Halloween they may not know that our nation’s dogs are also preparing for a revered holiday of their own.   It is known as the feast day of Saint Sucrose, and on this day all dogs are expected to participate in the traditional scarfing of the goodies.  Bowls and bags of delectables are brought into the home and placed at about nose level, where dogs with good timing and speed will be able to gorge themselves to their hearts content before the feast is abruptly ended with the traditional shouting of "NO NO BAD DOG."

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Heart Murmurs

It’s annual exam and vaccine time for your dog.  He has been doing very well and there have been no problems concerning you, so you are expecting to quickly sail through  this exam as usual. Then your veterinarian pauses with the stethoscope over your dog’s heart.  She listens a while, then listens some more, then she tells you that he has developed a heart murmur.  That news can make a dog owner’s blood run cold.  What do you do now?

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Heartworm Disease

        Its that time of year again.  The birds are chirping, the flowers are starting to bloom, and a veterinarian’s thoughts turn to--heartworm prevention.  I have the feeling that in warmer climates many dog owners could give the heartworm speech as well as their veterinarians, (if you just say the words "Florida" or "Texas" too loudly your dog may get heartworm disease) but here in Colorado I find that there are many people who have heard that heartworm prevention is an important thing for their dogs, but they tend to be a little foggy on the reasons why.  So here is the tale of a  parasite that goes overcomes much adversity before reaching its final destination inside the heart of a dog where it hopes to live happily ever after, and how we can prevent it from ever getting there.

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I just recently lost a patient to heat stroke.  She was not the first one, but after helplessly witnessing one of the most horrible and agonizing deaths I have ever seen I feel compelled to do what I can to keep this from happening to anyone else.

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Mr. Neilson had quite a shock waiting for him when he came home from work in the evening.  In the back yard he found his previously healthy, 9 year old German Shepherd, "Gerta", dead with no apparent cause.  When he brought her in to me for cremation he told me that he suspected his neighbor may have done something to her.  Admittedly "Gerta" had been a bit of a nuisance barker and that had been a source of friction between the two households, resulting in calls to the Humane Society and citations in the past.  Was it possible she was poisoned?

A brief post-mortem exam showed that Gerta had an abdomen filled with blood and a mass on her spleen about the size of a baseball.  The neighbor was off the hook.  Gerta had died as a result of a bleeding hemangiosarcoma, one of the more common reasons for unexpected sudden death, and much more common reason than nefarious actions by people in the neighborhood.

Hemangiosarcoma is a type of cancer that generally affects older, larger breed dogs.  Hemangio means blood vessel, and sarcoma means malignant cancer.  These tumors are essentially balls of abnormal, cancerous blood vessels that  form primarily on the spleen, but can also appear in the liver, heart, and skin.  Because the cancer cells forming these blood vessel clumps don’t stick together very well they tend to fall apart and allow profuse bleeding from the tumor.  When hemagiosarcomas appear on the skin  they bleed to the outside, which is hard to miss.  The bleeding is difficult to stop without just surgically removing the mass,  but hemangisarcomas confined to the skin tend to be less aggressive and can sometimes be cured by surgical removal.  A tumor on the base of the heart pours blood into the pericardium, the sac around the heart muscle, which squeezes the heart to the point it cannot function.  The most common place for hemangiosarcomas to  form is on the spleen or liver where they leak blood into the abdomen.  Sometimes the amount of  bleeding is massive and fatal, and sometimes it is more minor, causing weakness and lethargy that gradually improves as the blood is reabsorbed back into the system over the course of a few days.  Often an affected animal has been having subtle waxing and waning episodes of weakness for some time before the problem is discovered or a more serious bleeding episode becomes fatal. 

The most difficult aspect of this condition is that the tumors are often too small to be easily detected by palpation or even x-ray, they do not cause pain, they do not cause obvious changes in blood chemistries, and until bleeding occurs they are generally completely silent.  Ultrasound examination of the heart or abdomen is a good means of finding internal tumors, but it would require psychic powers or random scanning to catch them before problems appear.

When a tumor is discovered there are some treatment options.  If the cancer is confined to the spleen, surgical removal of the spleen followed by chemotherapy may increase the survival time in some patients.  Unfortunately the cancer has almost always spread at least microscopically to other parts of the body before it is detected, so surgery and chemotherapy are palliative, not curative treatments.  Although I have had some patients live for a year after surgery and chemotherapy it is much more typical that dogs live no more than a few weeks after surgery, even when there was no evidence of disease beyond the spleen.  Dogs with hemangiosarcoma spread throughout their liver or on their heart are generally not surgical candidates at all, and without surgery, chemotherapy does not do much in this situation.