Silent Killers for Pets: Splenic Tumors

Fend off silent killers in dogs, like splenic tumors, by getting regular check-ups at your veterinarian. We explain what splenic tumors are and how they're treated.

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Do you ever worry that your dog (especially if they're older) has something going on internally that isn't presenting any obvious signs? We are fortunate in this modern era of veterinary care that there are so many preventive options available to ensure that our pets can live their happiest, healthiest, longest lives. The unfortunate thing, and the reason it is normal to worry, is that there are still “silent killers” out there – sneaky disease processes or problems that can develop in your dog and go undetected.

Regular exams with your veterinarian and routine lab screenings can certainly decrease the chance of allowing something like this to happen. However, in the case of splenic tumors, it is not unusual for pet owners and veterinarians to only become aware after the tumor is large or bleeding internally.

The purpose of this article is to help you understand how this could occur and give you some tips on how to best prevent splenic tumors and other sneaky problems from going undetected.

What Is a Splenic Tumor?

Like many tumors or cancerous processes in humans, we don’t know exactly why some dogs become afflicted and others live their entire lives cancer-free.

Splenic tumorsin dogs can be benign or malignant. They are often hemangiomas and do not spread or metastasize to other areas of the body. Malignant splenic tumors in dogs are usually diagnosed via histopathology as mast cell tumors or hemangiosarcomas, and, in some cases, lymphoma (this is the most common type in cats). All of these malignant type tumors have a high risk of sending cancerous cells to other areas of the body and negatively affecting your dog’s lifespan.

The good news is that, according to most sources, at least 50% of splenic tumors in dogs are benign. However, regardless of the nature of the tumors, they carry the risk of internal bleeding and, therefore, surgery is almost always recommended to remove the entire spleen.

Surgical Removal of the Spleen

Splenectomy is the term for surgically removing the entire spleen, and most pet owners are surprised to learn that animals can go on living completely normal lives once it is removed. That being said, if the splenic tumor is determined to be malignant or has spread to other areas of the body, your pet will have a shortened lifespan.

Meeting with a veterinary oncologist to find out what can be done to slow down or prevent the cancer spread is ideal for your pet. Even if you decide not to proceed with any type of cancer treatment, you will gain valuable insight into your pet’s prognosis and the best options for palliative care (treatment geared at keeping them comfortable for as long as possible). In the case of the benign splenic tumors, once the spleen is removed, the dog typically lives out their life as expected with no negative effects on their longevity.

There are some cases where a dog’s condition is too delicate to proceed to surgery. This is often the case with dogs in their advanced senior years with concurrent serious medical conditions. It is also the case with some malignant tumors that have already spread extensively throughout the dog’s body.

Neither veterinarians nor pet owners want their furry friends to suffer, so quality of life and the comfort of your dog will become the priority. In these cases, you will need to have an open discussion with your veterinarian regarding whether it is safe and reasonable for your dog to continue living with the splenic mass or if it is best to consider humane euthanasia.

How to Do Your Best to Combat Canine “Silent Killers”

You can’t really prevent a splenic tumor, but you can take steps that result in early detection, so that your pet has more options for treatment. Early detection is the key to minimizing the chance that a splenic tumor or other sneaky disease process will shorten your dog’s life.

These tumors can result in changes on routine lab work, especially if they are causing any bleeding. When they are large enough, they can be palpated or felt by your veterinarian during a physical exam. And, in most cases, as soon as they change the shape or size of the spleen, they can be found on radiographs.

It is not common for veterinarians to recommend radiographs solely for screening, but they are often recommended if your dog is in pain, having digestive issues, experiencing respiratory changes, or as a safety measure before an anesthetic procedure. Veterinarians often catch these sneaky tumors as “incidental findings” in radiographs when we are actually working on some other area of your pet’s body.

Routine exams and bloodwork are recommended as general screening at least once per year and, in senior pets, at least twice per year. When you follow these recommendations, you increase the chance for early detection of splenic tumors and all the other problems that can pop up in your pet unbeknownst to you. Sometimes, even when you do everything right and follow all the recommendations, these tumors go undetected until they are very large and problematic.

It is important to understand that this is not your fault or your veterinarian’s. There is a reason splenic tumors are considered sneaky. No matter when the tumor is detected, the earlier we find it, the better chance your pet will have at a longer, more comfortable life. 

Veterinary visits and screenings certainly do not come without a cost to the pet owner. But these routine visits and diagnostics greatly reduce the chance that your pet will end up in an emergency situation due to a “silent killer” that is MUCH more costly to their well-being and your budget.

One option that has made preventive healthcare more reasonable for pet owners is pet insurance. Click here for an Accident & Illness Coverage quote from AKC Pet Insurance (underwritten by Independence American Insurance Company), and get coverage for eligible expenses related to cancer, X-ray & ultrasound, emergency care, and much more.

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Nell Ostermeier DVM, CVA, FAAVA

Nell Ostermeier is an Integrative Veterinarian, Motivator, Lecturer, and Consultant.

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