Leukemia in Dogs

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In-depth Information on Therapy

Therapy and prognosis for the different types of leukemia are quite different. ALL tends to have a very poor prognosis, and affected animals often succumb to secondary infection. Although the cancer cells may respond to therapy, the presence of secondary complications often creates severe illness. In addition to being at risk for infection, these patients are often profoundly anemic, may develop life threatening bleeding disorders, and can even suffer from neurologic disease such as seizures and strokes. Unfortunately, pets with ALL often die within days to months of diagnosis. Animals with CLL, on the other hand, can do quite well and will often live several years with appropriate treatment. The mainstays of therapy are listed below.

  • Chemotherapy. Several different drugs are used in combination for the treatment of both ALL and CLL. Initially, this involves weekly visits to the veterinarian. The response to chemotherapy in patients with ALL is often disappointing. Most CLL patients do well with chemotherapy.
  • Blood transfusions. Because many of the animals with ALL are anemic at presentation, blood transfusions are often necessary to stabilize the pet. This requires careful monitoring and the availability of access to canine and feline blood products. Similar to human blood transfusions, the donor blood type must be compatible with the recipient’s blood type. Transfusions are often only available at specialty hospitals or emergency centers.
  • Antibiotics. Pets with ALL often have a low proportion of normal white blood cells, which work to fight infection. Because of this, they are at very high risk for bacterial infections that can be life threatening. Chemotherapy can also worsen the situation, as many drugs can lower the white blood cell count even further. Treatment with antibiotics is indicated to prevent overwhelming infection in these pets. If evidence of infection is already present, cultures of urine, blood, and possibly other fluids, is necessary to choose the appropriate antibiotic therapy.
  • Supportive care. In addition to the above therapies, severely ill pets require intravenous fluid therapy to correct dehydration and keep blood electrolyte levels balanced, as well as to help maintain normal blood pressure and kidney function. Nutrition is also an important component of therapy. Cancer patients lose weight rapidly and may not be able to get enough nutrients, especially if they are not eating, or they are experiencing gastrointestinal illness. Feeding tubes or intravenous feeding may be necessary to sustain patients. Intravenous feeding requires special catheter placement, and is only available at specialty hospitals with critical care facilities.
  • Follow-up Care for Dogs with Leukemia

    Optimal treatment for your dog requires a combination of home and professional veterinary care. Follow-up can be critical, especially if your pet does not improve over the expected time frame. Administer all prescribed medications as directed. Alert your veterinarian if you are experiencing problems treating your dog.

    Follow-up will include weekly evaluations of the CBC to monitor red and white blood cell counts and platelet levels. This is one important way to measure response to treatment. Additional bloodwork, such as biochemical profiles may also be needed, depending on the results of the original profile.

    Just as important as the lab results, physical examination by your veterinarian on a weekly basis is imperative until the disease process is considered to be stable or in remission. Your veterinarian will monitor weight, body condition, and temperature and palpate lymph nodes and internal organs to assess their size.

    Repeat x-rays or ultrasound exam may be indicated to track changes in organ size as well.

    Once your pet is stable, less frequent exams will be needed, but close contact with your veterinarian is required for the life of your dog.

    Monitor your dog at home for signs of lethargy, continued weight loss, anorexia, and general weakness. Learn how to check your pet’s temperature with a rectal thermometer and call the veterinarian if a fever is present. A temperature greater than 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit in a resting animal is abnormal. Remember that body temperature may rise with exercise and a warm environment.

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