Ask The Vet - Dr. Anne Pierce, DVM


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.

Hiking Considerations

Hiking season is upon us.  As many of us are gearing up to hit the trails in earnest this summer we are looking forward to getting our canine companions out there too.  Here are some things to think about if you are considering bringing your pooch along on weekend warrior expeditions.

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Hiking in the Heat

A friend of mine recently set out  to hike Pikes Peak with his trusty companion, a nine year old Lab named Donald.  In his younger days  Donald would run circles around  the hikers as they huffed and gasped up the hills, but  recently although the enthusiasm remained, he seemed to be losing a step or two.  The hike started out as always,  with a wagging tail and  lots of bounding, but by Barr camp Donald was diving over to any pool of shade he could find and flopping down.  Eventually it became clear that this dog wasn’t walking anywhere anytime soon.  This poses a bit of a problem when you are many miles up the side of a mountain with a ninety pound dog who has lost his go power.  The episode ended with an unplanned overnight stay, a trip back down the mountain and back up again with a stretcher for the dog, and a lot of tired, cranky people.

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Hind End Paralysis

It had been five months since Mr. Smith had noticed that Shep, his trusty German Shepherd sidekick for the past 10 years, was starting to struggle to use his hind end when  getting up from resting and going up the stairs.  He had gotten some anti-inflammatory medication from his veterinarian , but in spite of faithfully taking his medication every day Shep seemed to be having more and more difficulty getting around.  Now he had a bit of a drunken sway to his hindquarters when he walked and he was dragging his feet enough that the tops of his toenails were wearing down.  Occasionally he would stand with his hind feet crossed, and when he stood still for any period of time his rear end would start sagging toward the ground.  In spite of  his impaired mobility Shep still seemed to have the same happy attitude and would stagger to the kitchen as rapidly and enthusiastically as he could when he heard the familiar crinkle of the dog treat bag.  There was nothing was slow about his front end when treats came his direction.

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Ask Dr. Anne Pierce, DVM