Leukemia occurs in dogs in two main forms: chronic leukemia and acute leukemia. Both are fairly treatable, but neither is curable unfortunately. As with all canine cancers, the key to helping your dog live with leukemia is catching it early. Below is a list of common symptoms to look out for, as well as some information on the diagnosis and treatment options for both acute and chronic leukemia in dogs.
Acute vs. Chronic Leukemia in Dogs
Acute leukemia occurs when leukocytes, or bad blood cells, are reproducing rapidly and leukemia progresses very quickly. Your dog’s red and white blood cell counts will be lower than they need to be to fight off diseases and function at 100%. Chronic leukemia, on the other hand, occurs and progresses more slowly over time.
Acute leukemia is more common in middle-aged dogs around 5-6 years old, whereas chronic leukemia is more common in older dogs. Both types of leukemia can cause a weakened immune system, due to lower white blood cell count, which may lead to contraction of other diseases or illnesses more easily. Because of this, many dogs that have leukemia have more generic symptoms and are not immediately diagnosed as they may have contracted something else in addition to the cancer.
In addition, leukemia cells typically spread to other organs through the blood, most often the kidneys or liver, so symptoms of kidney or liver problems could be a sign of leukemia in dogs. Radiation and other chemicals have been suggested as causes of leukemia, but no reputable studies have corroborated this as yet.
Symptoms of Leukemia in Dogs
As mentioned above, it can be tough to notice symptoms specific to leukemia, as the cancer affects the immune system and internal organs most obviously. Take your dog to the vet if you notice any of the following issues, or any general illnesses within your dog.
- General symptoms (lethargy, loss of appetite, pain)
- Purple or red spots on the skin or gums from hemorrhages beneath the skin
- Additional symptoms based on organs in the body that have been affected
Diagnosis of Leukemia in Dogs
The most common diagnosis of leukemia comes from an irregular blood sample, in which the white blood cell or red blood cell counts (or both) seem off. Most leukemic patients are diagnosed this way, often by accident during a routine blood test.
A true diagnosis occurs after your vet conducts a biopsy or bone marrow aspiration. These can be painful for the dog, and typically require anesthesia for comfort and to prevent the dog from moving during the procedure.