Acute Leukemia in Dogs

Acute leukemia in dogs occurs when your dog's bone marrow produces cancerous cells instead of the white cells that help your dog's immune system fight off infection. Leukemia in dogs may be either acute or chronic. Acute leukemia occurs when more than 30% of your dog's white blood cells have become cancerous, while, in chronic leukemia, the concentration of cancerous cells in your dog's blood tends to be much lower. Let's learn more about acute canine leukemia, its symptoms, its treatment and its prognosis.

Symptoms of Acute Leukemia in Dogs

Leukemia in dogs is a type of cancer in which your dog's bone marrow begins to produce cancerous cells instead of normal ones. When your dog's bone marrow produces so many cancerous blood cells that they make up 30% or more of your dog's total blood cell count, then the resultant condition is known as acute leukemia. Chronic leukemia, another form of the same disease, advances less rapidly, with a more balanced concentration of cancerous cells in the blood.

Vets don't fully understand what causes acute canine leukemia. Some think that specific medical conditions can contribute to the development of this type of cancer. Others believe that exposure to toxins and cancer-causing agents increases the risk of developing acute canine leukemia. 

Symptoms of acute leukemia in dogs include decreased appetite, weight loss, lethargy and fatigue. Some dogs with leukemia may limp, due to pain in the affected bones. These symptoms can appear with a number of other conditions. Symptoms specific to acute leukemia include:

  • The appearance of tiny purple or red spots on the skin
  • Enlargement or inflammation of the spleen, lymph nodes and liver
  • Paling of the gums and mucous membranes
  • Increased thirst and increased urination

Your vet can diagnose acute leukemia through a blood test and a tissue biopsy. If your vet finds abnormally high white blood cells counts in your dog's bone marrow and in his blood, and those counts are at least 30% higher than normal, he will diagnose acute leukemia. If your dog has abnormally high white blood cells counts, but the counts remain lower than 30% above normal, your vet will diagnose chronic canine leukemia.

When speaking of canine leukemia, the words "acute" and "chronic" aren't used to indicate the length or suddenness of onset of the disease, as they are when speaking of other conditions. They are used instead to indicate the speed with which your dog's bone marrow is producing abnormal cells.

Treating Canine Acute Leukemia

Acute leukemia in dogs is very difficult to treat, because it causes your dog's bone marrow to produce cancerous cells at an accelerated rate. Most vets choose to treat this type of cancer with aggressive chemotherapy. Unfortunately, chemotherapy often does little to improve symptoms or survival rates.

Canine Acute Leukemia Prognosis

Acute leukemia in dogs occurs suddenly and progresses quickly. The prognosis is usually quite poor. Most dogs with this type of cancer survive for only a few days to a few weeks, even with treatment.