Leukemia in Dogs

Leukemia in dogs is a cancer of the bone marrow. Vets don't know what causes dog leukemia, but it's a very serious condition that can be deadly. Here's what you should know about leukemia in dogs.

Types of Canine Leukemia

There are two types of leukemia that can occur in dogs, acute and chronic. Acute leukemia is known as acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and it's common in large breed dogs, especially German Shepherds. Dogs with acute leukemia get very sick quite quickly, and will usually run a fever. 

Chronic canine leukemia is known as chronic lymphocytic leukemia, and it's most common in geriatric animals older than ten years of age. Symptoms can take a long time to become severe. Dogs may suffer from this type of leukemia for months before symptoms become severe enough to warrant a veterinary exam, and this disease can be quite advanced before it's diagnosed.

Symptoms of Canine Leukemia

The symptoms of leukemia can be hard to diagnose in dogs because they are quite similar to the symptoms of a number of other canine diseases. Diseases that cause similar symptoms include:

  • Sepsis or another serious bacterial infection
  • Lymphoma, a type of cancer similar to leukemia
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Conditions that cause inflammation of internal organs, like pancreatitis

The symptoms of canine leukemia include:

  • Decreased appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Easy bruising or excessive bleeding
  • Lethargy
  • Paleness of the gums or other mucous membranes in the mouth and eyes
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Lameness, since leukemia affects the bones
  • Excessive urination and thirst
  • Seizures
  • Abnormal behavior

Diagnosing Canine Leukemia

Your vet will need to perform a range of tests to diagnose leukemia in your dog. First he'll want to rule out other conditions that can cause similar symptoms. A complete medical history and full physical exam will be necessary.

Your vet may need blood tests, urinalysis, X-rays and a biochemical profile to determine if your dog is suffering from leukemia. Ultrasounds can help your vet determine if internal organs are damaged. Your vet will use a fine needle to remove tissue samples from the bone marrow and lymph nodes if he suspects leukemia. These samples can tell your vet if your dog's blood contains cancerous cells.

Canine Leukemia Treatment and Prognosis

Dogs who develop acute leukemia often have a very poor prognosis. These dogs are more likely to succumb to dangerous secondary infections and may suffer from anemia, bleeding disorders, seizures and stroke. Blood transfusions may be necessary to treat severe anemia, and chemotherapy can help to destroy cancer cells; antibiotics may be necessary to manage secondary infection. Acute leukemia does not respond well to treatment and most dogs who develop this form of leukemia die within a few months of being diagnosed.

Dogs with chronic leukemia have a much better prognosis. Chronic leukemia typically responds well to treatment and dogs with chronic leukemia usually do well with chemotherapy and supportive care. IV fluid therapy and a highly nutritious diet can help your dog recover from chronic leukemia. Dogs who are treated for chronic leukemia often recover and return to a normal lifestyle.