We know how upsetting it is to suspect that your pet dog has cancer. It can be even more painful to get their diagnosis. The good news is, there are treatments that could extend your dog’s life and potentially put their cancer into remission.
This article explores what lymphoma is, what causes it, the symptoms, diagnosis, and how the disease is treated.
What is canine lymphoma?
Canine Lymphoma is a cancer that affects the lymphatic system.
The lymphatic system is responsible for several functions including the movement of waste through the body, balance of bodily fluids, and immune response. This cancer can be localized to one area or spread throughout the body.
Lymphoma is a relatively common cancer, accounting for 15 – 20% of new cancer diagnoses in dogs.
There are four different types of lymphoma: multicentric, alimentary, mediastinal, and extranodal.
What causes lymphoma in dogs?
Unfortunately, the exact cause of lymphoma in dogs is not understood.
Several different possibilities have been studied, including:
Lymphoma is usually found in adult and senior dogs, we just don’t know what makes it happen.
As an owner the most you can do is feed your dog a healthy diet, make sure they get enough exercise, and try to reduce their exposure to harmful chemicals.
Even doing all this, there is a chance your dog will develop lymphoma in their lifetime.
How can I tell if my dog has lymphoma?
It’s hard to know when our dogs are sick because they can’t tell us, but as owners we can see when our furry friends are not themselves.
The symptoms of lymphoma depend on the specific areas of the body where the cancer can be found.
The most common symptom are swollen lymph nodes. This is a sign of multicentric lymphoma, which accounts for 80 – 85% of all lymphoma cases in dogs.
The second most common type of lymphoma is alimentary, third is mediastinal.
Extranodal lymphoma is rare because it happens outside of the lymphatic system.
We've broken down the information on where in the body and signs for each type of lymphoma found in your pet dog.
Location in the body:
Enlarged lymph nodes around face, neck or backs of legs, lethargy, weight loss, unusual lumps or bumps
Location in the body:
Vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss
Location in the body:
Coughing, shortness of breath
Location in the body:
Organs outside of lymphatic system
Varies greatly depending on organ(s) affected
As you can see, the symptoms of lymphoma in dogs can be widely varied depending on the type of lymphoma, location in the body and the stage of the tumor.
Many symptoms are general and could mean a lot of different things, which is why it’s important not to ignore any signs your dog is showing and get a professional opinion.
How is canine lymphoma diagnosed?
If you notice that your pet has enlarged lymph nodes, it’s important to have them assessed by a veterinarian and have a complete physical examination to determine the cause of any symptoms seen.
Swollen lymph nodes can be a sign of less serious issues like infections and autoimmune diseases, but for adult and senior dogs especially you will want to rule cancer out.
If lumps or bumps are found or if Lymphoma is suspected, most vets will start with a fine needle aspirate. This involves taking a small sample of cells from the lymph nodes or affected organ and examining them under a microscope for evidence of cancerous cells.
If the fine needle aspirate comes back inconclusive, or cannot be performed because of where the cancer is located, a biopsy of the tumor may be required. A biopsy involves the surgical removal of a tissue sample.
In addition to examining your dog’s cells, the vet may also perform other tests including baseline screening bloodwork, a complete blood cell count, and serum biochemistry to assess the functioning of your dog’s internal organs.
Depending on the results of these initial tests and the type of lymphoma your vet finds (if any), they may require staging tests and information to find out how far the disease has progressed and your dog’s prognosis.
What is the prognosis for my dog?
The survival rate of canine lymphoma is a pertinent question for many pet parents.
Unfortunately the answer isn't that straightforward. Prognosis is heavily influenced by the type of lymphoma, the tumor stage and choice of treatment.
Dogs diagnosed with lower grade lymphomas tend to live longer than dogs diagnosed with higher grade lymphomas.
Life expectancy for dogs receiving treatment can range anywhere from 6 months to 2+ years. If left untreated, life expectancy is much lower (4-6 weeks).
There are other factors to bear in mind that can affect the prognosis: your pet's age, overall health and stress.
According to the Center for Animal Referral and Emergency Services 15% of canines will be completely cured of lymphoma. Also most dogs that are treated with chemotherapy for canine lymphoma will enter remission, up to 90 percent, and can be complete or partial.
How is canine lymphoma treated?
The methods and protocols used to treat lymphoma in dogs are very similar to those that are used to treat humans with lymphoma.
Chemotherapy is the most common and effective treatment protocol for lymphoma in dogs. One chemo treatment commonly used for multicentric lymphoma is a 25 week treatment called UW-25, based on the CHOP protocol used to treat humans.
This treatment can extend your dog’s life from 9 – 13 months (give or take), but is not suitable for all lymphoma cases.
Most chemo treatments are administered via intravenous (IV) injection, although they also come in tablet or capsule form. If an IV catheter is used, a small section of your dog’s fur/hair will need to be shaved.
Luckily, when it comes to side effects of chemotherapy dogs don’t seem to have it as hard as humans do.
The most common side effects of dogs undergoing chemo are:
These symptoms usually last only one or two days after the treatment before subsiding.
If your dog suffers from more severe side effects, it’s important to talk to their professional care team. They may choose to lower the next dose of chemotherapy and can treat your dog’s symptoms.
After chemotherapy treatments most dogs with lymphoma enter remission.
It’s important here that you know the distinction between remission and being cured. When your dog is in remission it does not mean that they are cancer-free, it just cannot be detected using standard screening tests.
Surgery and/or radiation may be recommended in some cases of canine lymphoma but are not as common.
After care for dogs with lymphoma
Your dog’s recovery from lymphoma treatment will depend greatly on the type of lymphoma they have and what their treatment entails.
No matter what, your dog will need a lot of rest since cancer and its treatments are hard on the body so you'll need to be very careful and patient with the recovery process.
If your pup does require surgery, you will need to take extra care to keep their wounds clean. They may need to wear an e-collar, and you will have to save off-leash exercise for when their incisions have healed fully.
Depending on the location of the cancer and treatment, recovery can take from a few weeks to several months.
Medical disclaimer: If you are concerned about your pet, visit or call your veterinarian – he/she is your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your dog. This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian with respect to your pet.